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
The glass doors open to admit a middle-aged man in a business suit. Setting aside a box of cigars, the tobacco store owner greets the customer effusively and asks him how the family is doing. The customer responds with a smile, regaling the retailer with anecdotes about how his son is tearing up the local Little League. Soon, the pair are talking about the big tobacco news of the week. El Niño has wreaked havoc on the tobacco crops in Nicaragua and Honduras, the store owner says. The client wonders if his favorite cigar will be affected. Only time will tell, the retailer says, ringing up his purchases. As the customer leaves, the retailer reaches with her long tapered fingers for her double corona and takes a puff. This is the life, she thinks.
For eight women in various parts of the country, this, in fact, is the life: Diana Silvius-Gits, Louise Hood-Lipoff, Ruth Gorman, Joan Cvar, Linda Squires, Donna Brown, Brenda Roberts and Sherrin Willis are anomalies in the tobacco retailing industry. All established tobacco stores when tobacco wasn't king. They all have dealt with some form of prejudice in a retailing segment dominated by male purveyors and customers, as well as faced the rising tide of antismoking sentiments. But through it all, they all had the ambition and the belief to prevail in an industry known for its "old men's club" mentality.
The story begins with Diana Silvius-Gits of Up Down Tobacco in Chicago. Renowned throughout the industry for her boisterous spirit and tobacco knowledge, Silvius-Gits is the true trailblazer. But she had a long road to travel before she achieved success.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Silvius-Gits taught art at Grosse Pointe University-Liggett, a top prep school in suburban Detroit. She moved to Chicago after she married Gerald Gits, a native of the Windy City (they have since divorced). She bought the Gerald Bernard Art Gallery, which exhibited work from up-and-coming local artists. In 1963, she decided to incorporate tobacco into the gallery makeup. It wasn't long before tobacco became an obsession for Silvius-Gits.
"What I like about the business is that I just can't wait to get up every morning and participate in all the different functions and parties and visit the people and talk to customers," she says. "I think that anybody that runs a successful tobacco store lives, breathes and sleeps the business. It has become my life."
In 1965, she relocated the business to the corner of Wells and Burton in Chicago. It had a 12-year incarnation as a variety store that sold tobacco products, televisions, paper dresses and magic paraphernalia. In 1977, Silvius-Gits decided to make the business entirely tobacco-related. She hired an architect to build a multilevel store at 1550 North Wells, just down the street from the old location. The 1,650-square-foot store, with its five large walk-in humidors and 13-foot-high ceilings, has been there ever since and is a popular destination for area smokers.
But it wasn't always so. Many tobacco distributors were skeptical and didn't want to provide products for the fledgling store owner. Silvius-Gits attributes it to the fact that she was a woman trying to make it in a man's business, at a time when women held "pink collar" positions such as secretarial jobs.
"They acted like a bunch of rats," Silvius-Gits says, vehemently. But there were exceptions. "Malcolm Flasher [the former managing director of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America], Donald Gregg [who ran Faber, Coe & Gregg Inc.] and Wally Harris [of Dunhill] were really nice to me. If it hadn't been for those guys, I don't think that I would have been able to buy product because these [other] guys would sabotage you. That was the way that they treated all women. These guys wanted you to fail, and as soon as they found out you were successful, they wanted you out."
Having run a tobacco shop for more than 30 years, Silvius-Gits has labored through the highs and lows of the business, but she never threw in the towel. In the beginning she worked 18-hour days selling box after single box of cigars, while praying that she would have enough money left over to meet mortgage payments, she says. Slowly but surely, the business began to thrive; today the store employs 28 workers and it is one of the most successful in the nation. She won't disclose how much business she does, except to say "a lot." In addition to running Up Down, Silvius-Gits serves on the board of directors for the Tobacconist Association of America (TAA) and the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America (RTDA). She also has a premium cigar brand, the Diana Silvius cigar, which is made by Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. in the Dominican Republic, and she hopes to launch a Diana Silvius Red Label cigar with the help of Carlos Toraño and his Nicaraguan factory.
And the future? Silvius-Gits says that the cigar boom will start tapering off soon. She hopes that the price of cigars will drop. She says exorbitant prices are a result of new people streaming into every aspect of the business, from retailing to distributing to manufacturing, many of whom, she says, don't know the first thing about cigars and who are bribing factory workers with all sorts of luxuries to get them on their side. "I would say that now it is a necessity that the consumer purchase their cigars from an established tobacconist," she says. "I think that we have to educate people. There is no way that guys that have been in the business for six months can make a smokable cigar."
As for advice for fledgling businesswomen? "I think that if you have something that you want more than anything else in the world, you can do anything that you want to do."
Five years after Silvius-Gits launched her tobacco business in Chicago, Philadelphia native Louise Hood-Lipoff, then a 25-year-old radiology worker at a local hospital, opened Tobacco Village with her then-husband, David Hood, in suburban Philadelphia. Two years later, in 1970, she bought out Hood, whom she later divorced, and took complete control of the shop. For almost 25 years, Hood-Lipoff ran the 800-square-foot store, located in the Roosevelt Mall. In 1992, when new owners bought the mall and raised the rent nearly 50 percent, Hood-Lipoff transplanted her shop to a new mall across the street, to a space more than double the size. The landlords of her former shop sued, claiming she had broken the lease. Hood-Lipoff won the court battle. It's just one of the obstacles she has overcome during her almost 30 years in the business.
"I had a hard time proving myself in the beginning," she says. "I didn't take it personally, because when I looked at the field and I realized how few [women] there were around who owned a tobacco shop, I knew that I would just have to try harder. I made it my [mission] to learn about every single thing [in the business]. I just knew that I was going to be successful if I concentrated on it and listened to what my customers wanted."
Hood-Lipoff didn't have any retail experience, but she had the determination to make her store succeed. Intrigued by cigars and pipes, she felt that she had a flair for selling tobacco and dealing with customers, she says. She is grateful for the advice of General Cigar Co.'s Bob Williamfield, a vice president, and Mike Magill, a salesman, and Gus Gerstl, a former salesman for M&N Cigar Co. (now JC Newman & Corp.), who were her mentors when she started. "What I have learned from those three people was so invaluable that if I began to write it down, I could fill books," she says. "Back then we had 'real' salesmen, who came to the store and talked to you about product and told you what every little item was about. They weren't just 'order takers.' Now, I think that it is a little bit impersonal."
The industry today has other problems, she contends, charging that the newcomers to the business are driving up cigar prices and aren't knowledgeable about tobacco. "You know that when you walk into grocery stores and 7-11s and see [tobacco products], that these people do not belong in the cigar business," Hood-Lipoff says. "These people are coming to me and calling me up and asking, 'Can you help me do this, do you know about this, can you help me build a humidor?' Hey, I learned the hard way and I have spent a lot of money putting it together. I think that they are a detriment to the business."
Hood-Lipoff is firmly entrenched in the business. She has four employees, who all received on-the-job training. She has served as president of the Philadelphia Tobacco Retailers Association for the past six years. In 1986 she was presented with the Phillip G. Bondi award for Cigar Retailer of the Year from General Cigar. She even met her second husband, Irv Lipoff, through the business in 1979; he was one of her customers. Four years later, they married and spent their honeymoon touring the cigar factories in the Dominican Republic. Between them they have five children who have all helped at the store, but none has expressed interest in taking over the business.
Even if none of her children eventually step in, Hood-Lipoff sees a bright future ahead. "The pipe business has been doing wonderfully. I think pipes are the next trend." But cigars aren't taking a back seat. "Cigar sales are up every year," she says. "I think that people who have stuck with it are going to continue with it."
Sticking with it is what Ruth Gorman of Smoke & Snuff has done for 27 years. Her entrance into the business came as a result of a tragic loss. A homemaker, Gorman had to quickly change roles and learn about the tobacco business when her husband, Dan, died suddenly.
Born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Gorman grew up in an age when women were more likely to sell pies at bake sales than cigars in tobacco stores. She had briefly worked at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, but because her husband didn't approve of her working, she ended up volunteering instead. Then in 1970, her life changed. Dan Gorman decided to open a tobacco store in the Twin Cities because of his love for cigars and pipes, but five months after its launch he died of an aneurysm. Grieving and left with a daughter and a son to support, Gorman's best option was to continue running the store. Her husband had planned to open two more stores in the area, but after his death the company with the lease for the additional stores reneged on its agreement with Gorman. "They would not allow me to open the other two because, they said, 'What man is going to buy from a woman in a tobacco shop?'" she recalls.
But customers did buy her pipes and cigars. According to Gorman, her shop became so successful that in 1973, her daughter, Mary Ann Fores, decided to open another Smoke & Snuff, this time in Florida. One year after opening a store in Clearwater, the Gormans opened two more stores in the state, in St. Petersburg and Bradenton. Ruth Gorman and an employee left the Minnesota store under another employee's supervision and moved to Florida to run the expanding business, now called Garrison Corp. It wasn't long before more Smoke & Snuffs opened all along the Gulf Coast of the state, from Tallahassee to Naples.
The chain now numbers 18 stores, occupying from 650 square feet on up, with the largest being the Orlando Smoke & Snuff. Gorman closed the flagship St. Paul store six years ago to devote more time to the Florida stores. "It is completely different now, especially in the past few years. [Before] every retailer was nice to each other. When my husband died, the retailers would come and bring me merchandise, and the distributors were begging for business and everybody was really sweet," she says. "The reps would come often and help us, and I remember one real old cigar man from General Cigar, he came and taught me how to display cigars."
In addition to the tobacco products, Smoke & Snuff carries collectibles, such as beer steins and lighters, "whatever the customers want." She attributes her success to always attending to customers' wants and needs, and as a result her customers have been loyal. "I think to our credit, we never neglected the pipes through the years; the tobacco was always kept in good supply so we were a complete smokeshop," she says. "Our theory is: every sale counts."
With the help of her son, Gary, an attorney, who deals with the store leasing, and his wife, Elaine, who is the main gift buyer, Gorman is counting on the business to continue doing well. Gorman hopes Gary's son, Daniel, will join the business. Through the years he has helped at all the stores, and he is an avid cigar aficionado. Because Daniel is still a student, at the University of Wisconsin, they will have to wait and see, Gorman says.
Gorman no longer works the floor in her shops, but that doesn't mean that she has lost affection for the business or her customers. "I love the business. I think it's great," she says. "The customers are fantastic. Our customers are getting younger and younger and we have about every age range. [And] cigars are still the biggest thing."
Joan Cvar of Tinderbox in Murray, Utah, is a retailer who has already endured the tough times. Cvar, whose husband is a pipe smoker and whose father and grandfather smoked pipes and cigars, has always been around tobacco and has a wide knowledge of the subject. That hasn't kept her, however, from having the occasional bizarre run-in with an obstreperous customer.
Cvar grew up in Southern California and moved to Utah during her junior year in college. She taught elementary school for two years in Hawaii until she and her husband, Fred, decided to open a tobacco shop. In 1972, the Cvars launched the Tinderbox store in Murray, Utah.
For the first two years, the couple worked long days to make their business work. Joan Cvar ran the 600-square-foot store during the day, while Fred kept his computer job at Kennecott Copper Corp. and ran the store at night. After a few tough, yet productive, years they opened a second store in nearby Salt Lake City and hired two employees. Today, Fred runs the Salt Lake City store while Joan has taken over the flagship store. A friendly rivalry has ensued.
Although most people were accepting of Joan Cvar, mostly because as the owner of the store she was deemed knowledgeable, she had to deal with the occasional sexism.
"I don't think that there is any woman in the business who hasn't felt it," she says. "Many years ago, I walked up to a woman who was in the humidor and said, 'Hello, how are you doing? How can I help you?' and she said she needed to find out about cigars and she needed to talk to a man. I said, 'Well, I can help you, I am knowledgeable about cigars' and she said, 'No, you wouldn't know what I need to know. I need to talk to a man.' Now I was in a weird mood and so I said, 'Oh, a sexist,' which was not a good thing to say. One of my employees started to walk over to help and I turned around to walk away and she kicked me."
Later, the customer went to the Salt Lake City store and complained to Fred Cvar. Nothing more ever came of it. Although Joan Cvar regrets making the comment, she feels that "sometimes you just have to be like a real person instead of a robot."
Yet most of the Cvars' customers are a pleasure, and many have developed into friends. "Some of the customers have been coming in for 25 years," she says. "I see their obituaries in the papers and I get tears in my eyes. We have grown and we have been very successful and we have been blessed and we have survived and prospered. And the most rewarding thing has been all the friends that we have made."
The industry has changed a lot through the years, she says. Twenty-five years ago, pipes were bigger than cigars and many people still smoked cigarettes. Then the antismoking lobby gained power. To survive, Cvar had to diversify her business. She incorporated beer steins and nutcrackers into the stores. This helped Cvar maintain the inventory of tobacco products. Because of the resurgence of cigars and now pipes, Cvar devotes more space today to tobacco.
What worries Cvar now more than the antismokers is the escalating price of cigars and the high tobacco taxes. In Utah, the tobacco tax is a whopping 35 percent. She firmly believes that this has hurt the business. "The prices have increased so much that people, instead of smoking 10 cigars a week, will smoke two cigars. Business is still great, but you are seeing some resistance to the price."
Cvar has high hopes for the future. Her daughter, Emily, who has worked at the stores and even at Arnold's Tobacco Shop in New York City, might be the next generation to run the shops, but Joan and Fred won't push her. Their son, Andrew, is not interested.
She has no plans on expanding the business further, believing that she has enough on her plate presently to keep her busy. "I feel to properly run a store you have to be in the store, you have to deal with the customers one on one," she says. "We need to take care of what we have and nurture those customers so they come back."
Cvar also has no regrets on her career choice. "Fred and I talked about what we are going to do in the next few years and we can't see ourselves doing anything else. We just like it and still enjoy it. It has been an interesting 25 years."
Like Cvar, Linda Squires of the Squire Tobacco Shop in Santa Rosa, California, discovered that pipe smoking would play a role in her entry into the tobacco industry. Squires grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, attended college in California and, while working at a record store in a mall in 1970, fell in love with Barney Squires, who happened to be a pipe smoker. They soon married. In 1973, the newlyweds took a trip to Europe, where they decided to visit pipe makers and retailers in Copenhagen, Denmark. The couple was so fascinated with what they encountered that upon their return to the United States, they decided to open a tobacco shop.
Armed with $3,000 and a love for the business, they rented the front foyer of an old Victorian house in Santa Rosa. The Squires only had an antique display case with enough room for about six to eight boxes of cigars. Despite the meager space and limited product availability, the tobacco shop caught on, and after just eight months, the Squires moved to a larger downtown location. Two years later, they relocated into the Coddington Mall. Today, they have an 800-square-foot store at a different location within the same mall. For the past 12 years Linda has operated the store because Barney has worked as a Northwest region salesman for Consolidated Cigar Corp. Linda has never doubted her career choice.
"I think that life is too short to do something that you hate. I love this business, I love cigars, I love the fact that people are coming in and buying something that they take home and enjoy," she says. "They buy cigars for pleasure, for relaxation, for enjoyment--and I think that is just great. You are talking about a product that is handled with such love and care right from the beginning."
Despite the love and the success, the shop wasn't immune to the downturn in the industry that preceded the current boom. While many other tobacco retailers were closing in the late '80s because of lackluster sales, the Squires were diversifying their business, adding men's gifts and accessories and even an espresso bar, when such bars were still a novelty, to the store. Keeping abreast of trends is one of the reasons that the shop has survived, Linda Squires says.
"We had some lean years. I think my good fortune is that my husband visits every shop in the Northwest and he sees what the successful people are doing. He can see people who are making mistakes, and he is my partner and mentor," she says. "He has his eyes open all the time, so we are constantly talking about the trends and what he sees people doing that have proven successful for them; this is so invaluable."
Squires hasn't had to suffer from sexism very often. She says that people in the industry have always treated her with the utmost respect, have supported her, and that she always felt very welcomed. That doesn't mean that people don't come in and want to talk to a man. But she says that her "feathers aren't ruffled one bit" when some customers assume that she doesn't know anything about the business. They don't know, for example, that she is on the board of directors of both the RTDA and TAA, a feat few women, or men, have accomplished in their careers.
The Squires have two children, Michael, 11 and Kimmy, 7. Her daughter has already started talking about doing displays for the store, but it is still much too early to tell if she wants to be the next generation, Squires says with a laugh.
Squires believes that the heightened interest in cigars is starting to slacken somewhat, noting that the store no longer sees the huge increases that it experienced the past several years. However, she says that the store is still profitable and that cigar smokers are here to stay. "I see the business continuing in spite of whatever legislation happens in the next few years," she says. "I think this trend is here to stay and the people that have fallen in love with the cigar, people who never smoked a cigar before and are smoking one or two a week, I think that antismoking legislation is not going to stop them."
South of the Squire Tobacco Shop lies the Mission Pipe Shop in San Jose, California. Donna Brown, who started the shop with her husband when she was a nonsmoker, was bothered when customers assumed that, as a woman, she wasn't knowledgeable about tobacco. Years later, an older salesman whom she met at a trade show gave her a piece of advice that would represent a turning point in her career. He told her not to worry, because "men sell bras and they don't wear them." That made her realize that she just needed to know the product well and that if she knew her business, she wasn't going to have any trouble.
Brown, a native of Chicago, attended the University of Wisconsin. After graduation, she and her husband, Bob, moved to California. In 1977, Bob, who was a teacher, bought a small tobacco shop in San Jose called Crest Pipe Store. The plan was that the former owner would continue to run the store for a year until Bob quit teaching to take it over. At the time, Donna was splitting her time between taking care of her two young children, working for a newspaper and helping out at the store one day a week.
One day the store manager had to have emergency back surgery and someone was needed to run the store. Donna took up the challenge. She operated the store for about a year and a half, and in 1978, the Browns bought a larger store, the 1,800-square-foot Mission Pipe Shop, which was located at a small shopping center.
Donna Brown continued to run the store, while her husband kept his teaching position and helped out on Saturdays. In 1981, Bob Brown and a friend, Howard Kushner, bought a tobacco store in Walnut Creek, about 40 miles to the north. The shop, Walnut Creek Tobacco, was located on a main street underneath a parking garage. Donna hired help and split her time between both stores. In 1989, an earthquake weakened the structure of the Walnut Creek Tobacco building. The Browns transplanted the store to a shopping center, but because of high rents and an exhorbitant California tobacco tax, they closed the Walnut Creek shop three years later, keeping the Mission Pipe store.
"The store has always made money," says Donna Brown. "A lot of the stores had started to branch off into gifts and I really did not want to do that. I wanted to do what we did, which was tobacco, pipes and cigars, and I wanted to do it in depth and do it more thoroughly than other people did. Even though a lot of the other stores started to close, our business was always fairly strong." Brown tries to have cigars in all prices ranges, to get cigars that represent value. Yet, two things concern her: the rising price of cigars, and taxation.
"Cigars are just getting very expensive and I am afraid that they are going to price themselves right out of the market. My husband teaches school, and if we weren't in the cigar business it would be very difficult for him to buy a $10 cigar," she says. "In 1989 we took a terrible hit because of the California [tobacco] tax, and they are talking about raising that again. If people want to smoke they are still going to do it, but you get to the point where they are so expensive..." she trails off.
The Browns have two children: a daughter, Julie, who teaches elementary school in nearby Fremont, and a son, Ryan, who attends Las Positas Junior College in California. Julie worked for the Brick Hanauer company for a while, selling cigars on the East Coast. Ryan, who smokes cigars, works for a large liquor chain that sells cigars. Donna Brown doesn't know if either child will take over the business.
Brown is currently remodeling her store because the business has thrived and expanded so much. "We are remodeling because we really feel that there is more business out there. Sixty-five percent of my business is cigars. That is strictly cigars, not including humidors and things like that," she says. "We do a fairly brisk tobacco business. [And] we don't want to neglect our pipe smokers."
For Brenda Roberts, selling cigars was the ultimate challenge. "I loved retail and I was a woman in a man's business," says the owner of Baker Street Tobacconist, Clocks and Gifts, in California's Napa Valley. "I was also a nonsmoker at the time, so it was kind of a seat-of-the-pants sort of thing and there I was, and 11 years later, here I am."
Roberts, a native of Denver, originally came to California in 1982 to work as a production director at a radio station in the Napa Valley. Soon afterward, she left the station for a position at an investment banking firm in San Francisco. In 1986, while she was managing a pager company in Napa, the local tobacco store came on the auction block. Roberts decided to buy it.
She was only 25 at the time and didn't know a lot about the business. But she made it work through the help of an older employee who knew a lot about buying and selling tobacco, she says. She learned everything hands-on, and while at first people were a little skeptical, she won them over with her thirst for knowledge. "People were looking at me and assuming that I didn't know anything," recalls Roberts. "So I would start talking to them and giving them recommendations, and suddenly they realized that yes, I do know what I am talking about. You fight that over the years and you [have] to fight it less and less as you get older."
Roberts fought hard to make her store successful. She attributes her success to listening to the customers and keeping the inventory at a high level. Although the store is only 600 square feet, she keeps it chock-full of cigars, pipes, tobacco, gifts and clocks of all sizes--the products that her customers want. But she emphasizes the tobacco.
"We are a tobacco shop first and a clock shop second," she says. "The idea was for an English sort of thing with Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes, so it had to be something that would mix well and that Napa needed and that I had a passion for. It's fascinating--it works because you have the sight, sound and aroma thing going on. It is a comfortable feel: good smell and good sound."
From the outset the store was successful, with business increasing by at least 10 percent each year, she says. Business got so big that Roberts built another, bigger store in nearby St. Helena. Each store has a walk-in humidor, and the tobacco and clock theme is prevalent throughout. While the Napa store is more of a local institution, the 1,200-square-foot St. Helena store is more tourist-oriented because of its location.
More tourists and locals may soon flock to Roberts' store and other tobacco shops because, as of January 1, a California law will prohibit smoking in all work places, including bars and private clubs. "It is horrendous," Roberts says. "That is going to cause some real changes or closures. I can't understand how long the public is going to take this."
That concern aside, Roberts loves the business, especially her customers. With six employees, she has a bit more time to breathe, although running both stores leaves her little time for herself, and she says she is too busy to open another store.
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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