Cigar Aficionado

D.C. Tobacconist Draper's Turns 120

A startlingly clear example that cigars can be good for you is on display in our nation's capital this May as it has been for the previous 1,439 months. W. Curtis Draper turns 120 years of age. Well, not Mr. Draper himself, but the tobacco shop that has borne his name these 12 decades. In fact, Draper's, as it's commonly referred to, is reliably reported to be the nation's seventh oldest tobacconist. Still, it's as up-to-date as any successful business.

"Draper's has always been about customer service, first and foremost," said John Anderson, the store's owner. "We know all our customers and because we've smoked everything in the shop, we can really help our customers fully enjoy their experience."

On May 4, Draper's kicked off its celebration of the 120th anniversary with a "first Friday" in the store and a party at the Sofitel hotel that night. For the occasion, La Aurora made a special Preferido shape of its 100 AƱos blend. At night, the food was Dominican, heavy on the appetizers, and the party took place on the Sofitel patio so that people could smoke.

The event was one of the few taking place within the capital's boundaries at which cigars were featured since the antismoking ordinance went into effect in January. Anderson says that the anti-smoking law is one of the biggest challenges the store has faced in its history.

"We are seeing a mass exodus of folks to Virginia. A lot of folks who had standing reservations in D.C. restaurants now have them and are doing their business in Virginia," said Anderson. "This includes some members of Congress. We've just started to reach across the [Potomac] river, but we don't want to step on any toes at the same time." (There are traditionally strong tobacconists in Virginia and the region's tobacconists have generally respected one another's turf.)

Anderson and his business partner, Matt Krimm, have seen sales drop about 18 percent since February. Store traffic has dropped more than 30 percent, Anderson estimated. That has had Draper's looking at "non-traditional" business avenues.

"You look at mail-order, non-traditional ways to generate revenue. We've begun looking at event planning where we might provide a cigar roller or a 'cigar girl' selling cigars," said Anderson. "Zealots are limiting where you can smoke, but once the weather gets better, you'll be able to smoke on patios. Restaurants have expressed interest in ordering more when the patios open."

One innovation was Draper's "first Friday" events. The first Friday of each month, Draper's hosts a special event. A recent one had Bill Coleman, of Bill's Backyard BBQ, serving up some excellent pulled pork. (Sidebar: If you haven't had Coleman's BBQ sauce, you are missing out on a uniquely grand experience.) These are tranquil and congenial gatherings until Anderson, at the request of customers, changes the music from techno to blues. This prompts Krimm to feign upset over the switch. Of course, the blues, visitors agree, goes much better with the BBQ and with the cigars.

Draper's attracts an interesting group of visitors most afternoons. In Washington, many of them are agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, the Secret Service and other departments of the federal government. An afternoon at Draper's can be a front-line perch on what's really going on with, say, the investigation into the sniper shootings that shook the capital area in 2002. It's all off-the-record, everyone being a gentleman, but it's hugely educational and entertaining.

Draper's, ultimately, is just a welcoming destination in the capital. Krimm, despite questionable musical preferences, serves unofficially as a "font of all things Washington." He can tell you the best restaurants to go to, what to order and who to talk to about getting in. For former residents of the city, this is an invaluable service.

William Curtis Draper founded the shop in 1887 and stayed on until 1946. Draper sold the store to an employee, Bill Martin, who held it until 1990 when he passed away and left the shop to his wife, Frances, and his longtime employee, John "Duke" Cox. Duke, known to everyone in the business, and Anderson, who was an employee, bought out Martin in 1999. Now, Duke has retired to the Maryland shore and Anderson owns the store with Krimm.

Anderson believes that part of Draper's success grows out of the relationship the store has historically had with cigar manufacturers and their reps.

"We want to develop a long-term relationship with our manufacturers. We're very fortunate in the relationships we have with people," Anderson said, but Draper's does it on its own terms. "We carry what we want to carry and what we can sell. We're not going to take cigars that we cannot sell just so we can get ones that are hot."

Draper's was selected in 1970 to introduce the Macanudo line to the U.S. market. The shop is proud to claim a close relationship with the Fuente family and was one of the first shops to carry the Hemingway Signature, which they gave away as samples for a little while and built a following. Sure, but try to get one now. Draper's was among the original Davidoff merchants, as well.

Alejandro Benes used to be a journalist. Now, he smokes cigars on his patio in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California.