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Making It in a Man's World

Eight Women Have Defied the Odds to Run Their Own Tobacco shops
Shandana A. Durrani
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 6)

Roberts' business continues to thrive. She has reaped the rewards of hard work, she says, and has high hopes for the future, that her business will continue to prosper as long as she fulfills her customers' wants and needs. "No matter whether it is tobacco or china, you have got to go with the flow and listen to your customers, and I think as long as you continue to change and adapt and listen, you will be OK," she says.

At the Tinderbox in Atlanta, Georgia, the owner, Sherrin Willis, has learned to adapt and change with the times. Born and raised in Savannah, Willis worked for neurologists after college. In 1989, she and her husband, Bob, a certified public accountant, bought the 850-square-foot Tinderbox store at Lennox Square in Atlanta. Their plan was to keep their day jobs until they retired and in the meantime leave the store in the hands of some managers, but they soon learned that owning a tobacco store is a very hands-on, give-it your-all sort of business. Sherrin began working full-time in the shop, and Bob joined her two years later.

"The first two to three years were a struggle," she recalls. "As a matter of fact, I think that most tobacco shops were selling gifts to pay the rent. I was in the store from six o'clock till nine at night for two and a half years, trying to get everything done. There were many times that I felt like throwing in the towel."

Though she was tempted to give up, Willis stuck with it and finally saw the cigar renaissance, which gave stores like hers a much-needed boost. Now she can't keep cigars on the shelf, especially the cigars that her customers most demand. And she really loves dealing with the customers. "We have some of the nicest people in the world shop in our store, and it is like an extended family. It feels pretty good to be accepted after the struggle I had," Willis says. "That is probably one of the most rewarding career moves I have ever had. After a good, hard day's work in the store, you go home feeling like you have done something."

Not all of her customers have been pleasant, however. Several years ago, a man came into the store looking to purchase cigars. As the owner, Willis offered her assistance. He began barraging her with questions about particular cigars, testing her knowledge. Willis, oblivious to the insults, calmly answered each question. The more answers she gave, the angrier he became, until he finally stormed out of the store. "He didn't know that I owned the store and told me that he was going to get me fired because I had a smart mouth and a bad attitude. I didn't tell him anything," she says. "He comes back, but not when I am around."

Incidents like this are rare, says Willis. Of more concern to Willis is the state of the cigar industry. "The things that really bother me are all the new stores and the price gouging. I think that that is really bad for the industry. I don't think the new taxation is hurting, because I think that the customers are prepared to pay that to enjoy their cigars. But the only thing that really worries me is somebody charging $15 for a $4 cigar."

Even though cigar prices are high, Willis does a brisk business. In 1995, sales were up 70 percent from the year before, and in 1996, the business was up another 50 percent. She and her husband work as a team: he is in charge of cigar buying and accounting, and she purchases the cigar accessories and other gifts and is responsible for the staff and making sure everything runs smoothly.

With business doing well, what happens next? "I think that [the growth] will eventually have to slow down a bit," says Willis, but "I think that the cigar smokers we have gained as new customers are going to be cigar smokers forever." *

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Comments   1 comment(s)

suman chaniyil — capecoral , florida 33909, usa,  —  June 16, 2012 7:26pm ET

like ur article

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