Jim Clark stewards the historic Straus Tobacconist
By Stephen A. Ross
As the owner of the nation’s third-oldest continuously operating tobacco specialty store, Straus Tobacconist, Jim Clark shoulders a heavy load. He faces not only the typical daily demands that confront any business owner, but he also has the added pressure of protecting his store and its 136-year history in today’s anti-tobacco environment with local, state and federal entities all seeming to want to outdo each other to put tobacconists out of business. These days, you’re almost as likely to find Clark visiting with Ohio state legislators at the state capitol building in Columbus as president of the Ohio Premium Cigar & Pipe Association as you are to see him selling cigars, pipes and pipe tobaccos inside the store he loves. While it’s a heavy burden, the 60-year-old Clark knows it’s a necessary evil to keep Straus Tobacconist’s legacy alive.
“Taxation, smoking bans, the ease of internet commerce, and now the Food and Drug Administration’s [FDA] attempt to regulate the premium cigar industry are the biggest challenges brick-and-mortar tobacconists are facing right now,” Clark says. “Small, independent and family-owned businesses are getting squeezed out everywhere. We’ve all got to be active in telling our stories to anyone who will listen to try to protect our businesses because they’re worth protecting.”
And Clark would know. He’s the steward of a business that traces its roots to 1880 when Henry Straus began a cigar wholesale company in Cincinnati. By 1905, Henry had built one of the top-selling cigar operations in the country. In 1894, Nathan and Samuel Straus, whose relation to Henry is unclear, established a different business that specialized in pipes and pipe tobaccos. Around 1905, the Straus brothers moved their business to the same Walnut Street location that Straus Tobacconist occupies today. The two different Straus concerns remained separate until 1970, when they became part of Straus-Keilson, a wholesale tobacco, candy and grocery distributor that owned a number of small tobacco and candy stores in the area.
Clark entered the Straus Tobacconist story in 1978, nearly 100 years after Henry Straus founded the business. Clark was 22 and fresh out of Xavier University with a degree in accounting. A shoe salesman since he was 14, Clark was soon to be married, and he knew he needed a job with better opportunities for advancement. Straus-Keilson provided that opportunity.
Clark’s timing couldn’t have been better. Straus Tobacconist had built a strong business after World War II through mail orders for one of its signature pipe tobaccos, Private Stock, which had become very popular with GIs serving in Europe during the war. As the 1980s progressed, orders for Private Stock and other pipe tobaccos began fading fast. There needed to be changes at Straus Tobacconist to stay in business.
“With my retail background I sort of volunteered my ideas on how to make up for the dwindling pipe tobacco sales,” Clark recalls. “I could see that some things just didn’t look right. We put in a line of leather goods and high-quality writing instruments, such as Montblanc, Sheaffer and Waterman. We added wines. It wasn’t rocket science because the customers tell you what you need. All you need to do is listen to them. I would take care of it for them, and that pleased them. That helped stabilize things before I bought the store.”
Eventually, Straus-Keilson was sold to another wholesale candy, tobacco and grocery distributor, Core-Mark. Core-Mark wasn’t interested in the retail stores, so they were spun off into another company, known as STK Industries. Clark soon was splitting his time as both manager of Straus Tobacconist and as an accountant at STK Industries, which maintained offices in the same building.
Most of those stores were nothing more than small tobacco kiosks that also sold candy bars and sodas, but Straus Tobacconist was an exception. In 1990, the store’s owner expressed interest in ridding himself of Straus Tobacconist. The kiosks could be easily manned with minimum wage employees and quickly turn a profit, but the full-scale tobacco shop was another matter altogether. It needed inventory and employees knowledgeable about the products it sold.
“The owner just lost interest in the business,” Clark says. “He said if he could find somebody to buy the store, he would sell it. I was interested. I went home that weekend and thought it over, and on Monday I came back in and asked if he would sell it to me. That was January 1991. We confirmed everything and got the paperwork finished by April.”
Of course, Clark’s timing was again impeccable. He now owned a legacy tobacco store in a prime downtown location just as the Cigar Boom took off.
“I looked like a genius,” he says while cracking a broad smile. “It was just blind luck, of course. During the Cigar Boom years, we were growing at more than 100 percent per year. I told people at the time that all we were doing was just trying to hang on and not do anything stupid. It was so easy to be tempted to become involved in all the things that people wanted you to do. People were opening stores left and right and filling them with the garbage cigars that were available at the time.”
While Clark avoided the heady temptations of easy money from the boom years, and thus preserved both his and Straus Tobacconist’s reputations, he recognized that there was an opportunity to responsibly open another location. A second Straus location opened in Florence, Kentucky, in 2000.
While the stores have the same owner and share the same name, they are quite different. The original Straus Tobacconist store is located in the heart of downtown Cincinnati, where parking can be hard to find. The Cincinnati Reds’ Great America Ball Park is just two blocks south. Fountain Square is one block north. The headquarters for Procter & Gamble and Fifth Third Bank are just a few minutes away. The customers are most likely business people who are interested in taking a quick break from their busy day with a cigar in the small lounge that Clark provides. The Florence location is in the heart of suburbia and is approximately three times larger than the downtown store, with ample parking outside. Pipes and pipe tobaccos are more popular at the Florence location than downtown, and the local pipe club, Cincinnati Area Pipe Society, meets there once a month. The Florence store also has a 750-square-foot Diamond Crown Lounge for smokers to relax and enjoy their pipes and cigars.
While there are plenty of differences between the two stores, they do have a few things in common; one of them is excellent product selection. The Cincinnati location is one of the original Davidoff Appointed Merchants in the U.S. and carries a full selection of Davidoff, Avo, The Griffin’s and Camacho products. Clark is proud that he jumped on board the Davidoff Appointed Merchant program as soon as he became Straus Tobacconist’s owner in 1991. He is equally proud of the relationship he has forged with the Fuente family and the Newman family, owners of the Arturo Fuente and J.C. Newman companies.
“The Fuente and Newman cigars are our top sellers at both locations,” Clark explains. “They’ve treated me extremely well over the years. We also do well with Padron, Ashton and Rocky Patel. We like to do business with private family-owned businesses because that’s what we are. They protect their products and monitor online sales to make sure they are sold in the proper way. We push their products.”
Tobacco and accessory sales make up approximately 94 percent of Straus Tobacconist’s annual sales, of which cigar sales compose 75 percent. Like all the old-time tobacco shops across the nation, Straus built its legacy on pipe and pipe tobacco sales, and Clark remains committed to serving his pipe customers, though he serves far more cigar smokers these days.
A popular pipe brand at Straus is HIS by Phillips & King, which sells for approximately $40. Clark is comfortable selling pipes in that range up to $150 but finds that more expensive pipes don’t sell well at his locations.
“The internet has become a major force in discounting high-end pipes,” he says. “It’s hard to get into the handmade high-end stuff. We don’t get too much into that range.”
Straus Tobacconist sells bulk tobaccos by Lane Limited, Peter Stokkebye and Sutliff. The downtown location doesn’t do too much in the way of tinned tobaccos, but the Florence location has become a haven for the area’s pipe smokers, with three cases devoted to pipes and a full selection of both bulk and tinned tobaccos. “They’ve been able to create a nice pipe following in Florence, while this store has always been more focused on cigars,” Clark explains.
While one store may be more focused on cigars and the other has a larger pipe contingent, they both share top-notch customer service. “You just got to take care of your customers,” Clark simply states. “If you take care of your customer and he’s happy, he will probably tell a person or two about his experience at your store. If you have an upset customer, he tells everybody he knows—neighbors, family and friends. That stuff spreads like wildfire. He makes a point to tell anybody about the bad service he’s had. So we make it a point that we’re predominantly known for excellent customer service. We make sure we have the right type of people staffing the store—knowledgeable and friendly.”
Between the two locations, Clark employs eight people. While he spends most of his time in the downtown store, he relies heavily on Grant Smyrlakis, who has been in the cigar industry for most of his life, to manage the shop when he is away. For the Florence location, he has Matt Gallaher overseeing the store.
“They’re the type of people I want to find to work here,” Clark says. “Someone who has the knowledge and passion to be able to explain the difference between a natural and maduro wrapper, or Honduran and Nicaraguan cigar. They’re enthusiastic about the products, and the customers pick up on that enthusiasm. It makes coming to one of the stores more than just a shopping experience.”
Clearly, Cincinnati area premium tobacco fans have enjoyed a luxury of rich experiences at Straus for more than a century, and Clark is fighting desperately to protect the privilege of serving those customers. As president of the Ohio Premium Cigar & Pipe Association, he successfully led the fight against a recent proposal to raise Ohio’s Other Tobacco Products tax to 51 percent from 17 percent. An articulate and passionate speaker, he has traveled to Washington, D.C., several times with the IPCPR to discuss protecting the premium cigar industry from FDA oversight. He’s a heavy lifter in the struggle to ensure that the retail premium tobacco trade remains a viable and profitable enterprise. He describes himself as a generally positive person, but when he considers what the future may hold for his business and countless hundreds like it across the nation he sometimes shudders.
“You have to plan very carefully for the future,” he says. “This onslaught that’s coming in the next three years can have a terrible toll on our industry, and it could very well drive all of the small independent businesses out of it. I do think we can live with the FDA in our industry so long as they’re willing to learn that we’re different from cigarette shops and convenience stores. You have to be 18 to walk into my store. Kids are not buying from us. If the FDA is willing to allow us to educate them about our industry, then I think we’ll be alright. If not, then we’ll have some very big problems that might be impossible to overcome. That would change the entire dynamic of our industry.”
Ever the optimist, Clark remains hopeful that FDA oversight won’t be as bad as it might presently seem. He continues to love this industry and plans to stick around for another 10 years or so when he hopes he can hand the store over to someone who loves Straus Tobacconist as much as he does.
“I really don’t see myself as the owner of Straus,” he concludes. “I’m just taking care of it. While I have it today, it’s not really mine. It belongs to the customers. I’m just trying to keep the legacy alive to pass it along to the next person who will love it like I do.”