59th Anniversary Issue: How It All Began…

In March of 1964 the first Mustang rolled off the Ford assembly line. The Beatles were taking America by storm with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”  With so many Mustangs on the road today (probably even playing The Beatles on Spotify) perhaps it’s kismet that something else very special and with real staying power was born on March 15th, 1964… Georgetown Tobacco & Pipe.  This month we celebrate our 59th anniversary and in this week’s article we take look back at how it all began with company President and Owner, David Berkebile.

“I never thought I’d be doing this for more than 10 years, but here we are at our 59th year.”

The Washington, D.C. native grew up on MacArthur Blvd. NW and was determined to have his own business by the time he was 25. In elementary school, he started his first enterprise raising and selling ducks.  So how did David go from tending his flock to opening Georgetown Tobacco?

Having smoked a pipe in the Navy, David was attracted to the business because of people, and the way pipes and cigars create special moments, whether alone or with friends.  “When you have a cigar, you’re never alone.”

At just 24, David was by no means an expert. Wanting to learn more about the business, David went to a local tobacco shop.  “They told me I was crazy— ‘never get into this business’, they said. I thought about it, and then I opened the doors 6 weeks later.” The biggest challenge was that he needed capital.  Reluctantly, he spoke to his father, who then mortgaged his house to give David $5,000 with which to start.  “I also got to know a few of the distributors who came to trust me, and gave me a year to pay.” That first year, Georgetown Tobacco & Pipe generated $25,000 mostly from pipe sales. The shop was a tiny one located at 1261 Wisconsin Avenue just a block north from our current location in Georgetown.

In fact, for the first five years, the store was primarily a pipe shop. “I learned from my customers. I’m not a particularly good salesperson, but I like people and they seem to like me. I liked the relationships we were making and if someone actually bought something, well, that was a bonus.”

With his long red hair and bellbottoms, David didn’t exactly fit the mold of the traditional pipe smoker in tweed.  He also had an interest in other things like handmade crafts, art, and collectibles. The store has always been different from others because of the interesting items David has brought in to complement the selection of pipes, cigars, and smoking accessories.  “It’s a challenge to see what works, like the hats, Venetian masks, cufflinks and original French lithograph posters from the 20th Century,” he says. For David, it’s also definitely part of the fun.

The business grew steadily throughout the ’60s, with David moving to our current flagship location at 3144 M St. NW in the summer of 1970.  “My landlord wanted the space back on Wisconsin Ave., so I moved in with a pawn broker. For the first several months, one half was my store, and one half was his.”  Our back humidor today is still lined with lead from the vault the pawn dealer kept.

As the business grew, David opened other locations going as far south as Williamsburg and having as many as 6 stores at one time. Gerald Ford was a customer in the Old Town Alexandria, VA location before he became President.  Anwar Sadat came in every time he was in Washington during the ’70s to buy second-hand Dunhill pipes, never new ones. “He was a very nice man, and very frugal.”

David’s favorite celebrity customer?

“I’ve never talked about this before.  We never treat famous people any differently. Everyone’s been in here over the years.” While David’s modesty and class made him a little uncomfortable with the subject, when pressed he shared, “Jonathan Winters.  I was always an admirer. He came in one day and was interested in an antique airplane we had for sale on consignment. I told him it wasn’t mine and it cost $3,500.” Jonathan Winters’ reply?

“For $3,500, it’s not going to be mine either…”

“He stayed that whole afternoon and had everyone laughing so hard you could hardly take a breath.”  It’s a memory that David and everyone working that day certainly cherish.

Next week, look forward to learning more about Georgetown Tobacco’s history and the impact of the Cigar Boom.