On Oct. 10, 2018, the Montgomery Inn Boathouse in Cincinnati, Ohio, hosted a very special event that honored Jim Clark, owner of Straus Tobacconist, for his 40th anniversary at Straus Tobacconist, the third-oldest continuously operating premium tobacco shop in the United States. Guests paid $150 to attend the celebratory dinner complete with cocktails and cigars, and all of the proceeds raised that night benefited the Ohio Premium Cigar and Pipe Association, which Clark leads as president.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of Straus’ legacy for 40 years,” Clark says, while taking a rare moment of relaxation in the lounge inside his downtown Cincinnati store more than a month after the anniversary celebration. “Straus’ history began in 1880, and I see myself more as a steward for the store than its owner. I’m just taking care of it for Straus’ customers, and I just hope to pass the store along to the next steward who loves it as much as I do. Tobacconists have a lot of challenges facing us right now that all add up to an effort to put us out of business. We’ve got to determine if our businesses are worth fighting for, because if they are, we must stop at nothing to protect them.”
A Store Worth Protecting
Straus Tobacconist’s history can be traced to 1880, when Henry Straus established a wholesale cigar company in Cincinnati. A little more than a decade later, Nathan and Samuel Straus, whose relation to Henry is not known, established a company specializing in pipes and pipe tobaccos. The Straus brothers opened a retail store on Walnut Street in downtown Cincinnati in 1905—the same location is home to Straus Tobacconist today. In 1970, the wholesale business established by Henry and the retail business established by Nathan and Samuel merged to become Straus-Kielson, a wholesale candy, tobacco and grocery distributor that also owned a few tobacco and candy kiosks in the area as well as the Straus Tobacconist store downtown.
For most of the store’s history, pipe tobacco was the top-selling category, with its Private Stock brand leading the way. Straus Tobacconist enjoyed an upsurge in sales after the end of World War II, as Private Stock became a national best-seller thanks to mail orders from GIs who learned of the tobacco while serving in the European theater of World War II and wanted to continue enjoying the pipe tobacco after they returned home.
As a 22-year-old recent graduate of nearby Xavier University with a degree in accounting, Clark joined Straus-Kielson in 1978. By the time he joined the business, Straus’ nearly four-decade success with Private Stock and other pipe tobaccos was coming to an end. Clark, who had worked in retail since he was 14 and supported himself in college as a shoe salesman, made a few suggestions on how the store might recoup its losses from sagging pipe tobacco sales.
While Straus Tobacconist struggled to make ends meet throughout the 1980s, the parent company went through a few changes, and Clark’s job requirements changed as well. By the end of the decade, Clark remained as an accountant for STK Industries, a company that was created to oversee Straus Tobacconist and the other tobacco kiosks in the Cincinnati area after Core-Mark bought Straus-Kielson, and he became manager of Straus Tobacconist. In 1990, when STK Industries wanted to sell Straus Tobacconist, Clark moved quickly to buy the store.
“By that point, the business had sort of stabilized thanks to the other items we had brought in to make up for the lower pipe tobacco sales,” Clark explains. “I learned that the store was for sale at the end of 1990, and I signed the paperwork and closed the deal in April 1991. A year later, we began to see cigar sales go up. I look like a genius now, but nobody could have known that the Cigar Boom was about to begin. It was purely blind luck on my part, but the Cigar Boom was almost like a license to print money for a premium tobacconist like me.”
When Clark bought Straus Tobacconist, the store’s entire cigar inventory fit into two 10-foot-long cigar display cases that might have held as few as 80 boxes of cigars between them. Clark could count his cigar vendors—Villazon, Consolidated Cigar Corporation, General Cigar Company, Arturo Fuente, J.C. Newman and Hollco-Rohr—on his fingers. Clark’s customers came into the store, made their purchases and left. To be sure, Clark has seen a lot of changes as a premium tobacconist
Undoubtedly the biggest change Clark has witnessed in his 40 years as a tobacconist has been the need to become more politically active to ensure that Straus Tobacconist’s legacy extends well beyond its nearly 140-year history. As president of the Ohio Premium Cigar and Pipe Association, Clark has rallied other tobacconists in the state to defend the industry. The association successfully staved off an attempt to raise Ohio’s Other Tobacco Products tax to 51 percent from 17 percent and was also able to get a 50 cent per cigar tax cap approved. Clark has also been active in the dialogue between the premium cigar industry and federal officials in Washington, D.C., having traveled to the nation’s capital on several occasions to discuss the impact of FDA regulation on his business. Clark adamantly believes that more voices make efforts to defend the industry stronger. All it takes is a little initiative on the retailer’s part
While Clark gladly shares his recipe for success in dealing with state and local issues, he’s less optimistic about turning back or significantly changing the FDA’s regulation of the premium cigar industry. The FDA’s November 2018 announcement of its plans to prohibit the sale of flavored vapor and tobacco products, Clark fears, is just another signal that the industry he loves may be headed toward significant changes that will ultimately drive out family-owned manufacturers and small, independent shop owners like himself.
Whatever the future may hold for the industry, one can be sure that Clark will be doing his best to keep his store alive and well—keeping that flame that Henry Straus originally sparked in 1880 bright for many years to come.
This story first appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– By Stephen A. Ross, senior editor of Tobacco Business Magazine.