Georgetown Tobacco: Celebrating Our 60th Anniversary!

Sixty years in business, for any business, is something to celebrate. What is unique about Georgetown Tobacco’s incredible staying power is the man behind it. At the age of 24, David Berkebile opened Georgetown Tobacco & Pipe on March 15th, 1964. Sixty years later, David continues to innovate, running the company he created. Now at age 84, David is still working six days per week and wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I didn’t think I’d make it 10 years, and here I am still running it 60 years later. It’s amazing!” mused David. If you’ve ever been in David’s office on the third floor of Georgetown Tobacco, you know it’s a special space. Smoking cigars here becomes a moment in time. Surrounded by the eclectic tobacciana David has collected over the years, and sitting with the man himself, one is keenly aware of the special history of our industry, and Georgetown Tobacco’s place in it.

In this conversation looking back on an incredible 60 years, David shares his story of getting into the business, his insights on current trends, and advice for newcomers to the industry.

While you might think 24 is young to be opening your own business, David’s entrepreneurial spirit began much earlier: “I opened my first store when I was 5. It was a flower shop, and I ‘borrowed’ the flowers from my neighbors yard. Then I started selling candy bars for 5 cents a piece, and when my father came home he asked me how much I paid for them. “5 cents!”– He explained that’s not how it works, and from then on, I know all about profits.”

David even learned about operational costs at a young age. “My father wouldn’t let me have an elephant.”  As a young boy, David was raising all kinds of animals– ducks who would march behind him down MacArthur Boulevard, racoons, possums, parakeets, even a porcupine. So when he saw an elephant advertised in the newspaper for $600, he was eager to take the plunge. His father, however, did not say no, but walked young David through the monthly costs of feeding an elephant. Needless to say, the elephant never joined the Berkebile menagerie.

So how did this young man who always thought he would be working with animals get into the tobacco business? “My brother smoked a pipe, and I always liked the smell. I started smoking one in the Navy, and one night— it was January 1st, 1964— the idea just came to me. I opened the doors 3 months later.” (You can learn more about the early days of Georgetown Tobacco in last year’s Anniversary issue of the Caucus Brief.)

The opening of Georgetown Tobacco in 1964 fell on the heels of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. “I had a hard time getting any cigars. Everyone had a hard time getting any, and when you could the most expensive one in the store was $3.” The majority of the business back then was pipes, and as David remembers, “A Dunhill Shell Briar cost $55.” Today, they start at $450.

David chose Georgetown as the location for his store because he was so familiar with the area, having grown up just a few miles away. His mother worked part-time at the Woolworths’ (now Urban Outfitters). At the time, “Georgetown was a mixed bag, and pretty blue collar commercially. There weren’t many of the fancy stores that we have today. In Georgetown, there are just a few shops older than ours, but Georgetown Tobacco is the only one in town with the original owner running it.

As we smoked our cigars, I asked David what, in his opinion, makes a good one? “It has to come from a reputable manufacturer who knows what they’re doing. Consistency is the most important thing, and that expertise takes years to develop. You have to be able to change with the times and keep the blends the same.”

So what about all the limited editions we’re seeing in the market? “It’s a little overdone. Are they exceptional? Not necessarily. It seems to be proliferated and a little excessive. When you create so many blends the quality isn’t always what it should be.”

So then what about the growing trend of cigars priced over $100? “Well, if you’re a good looking woman you can sell them,” he kidded. “It’s a special thing. We’re in a new era with the price of Cuban cigars going up into the 100s and 1,000s. It makes a $150 cigar a cheap cigar in a way. If the quality is good…” David is just as likely to smoke a $10 cigar as he his a more expensive one. But when you see the man who has worked in this business his whole life choose to smoke a Davidoff Royal Release Unbanded, you know it’s a great cigar.

We are about to head to the annual Premium Cigar Association trade show, so I asked David what advice he has for manufacturers who would like us to carry their cigars: “They have to have a unique taste that stands out from the rest of the people we have. It has to have character. And please, have professionalism in your reps and how you present yourselves to the market.”  It struck me that David referenced “people” we have, versus “cigars.” It’s a testament to how David approaches the business, which has been (and is) often more about the people than the products themselves.

David’s interest in people speaks to what is still keeping him motivated at 84: “I don’t plan to retire unless I have to. I like my employees and enjoy working with them, and I enjoy the customers. There are many things about the company that I find rewarding— but mostly the day to day interactions with people versus being behind a desk.”

That same sentiment is evident in how David defines success: “Having the admiration of customers, friends and family, based on trust and goodwill. Keeping your word, for the most part, even if it’s not always possible. It is something that is important to me.”

Over our 60 years, David has certainly earned success by his own definition. Even if you don’t know David, if you’ve shopped with us, you do. Georgetown Tobacco is as much a reflection of David as is possible in a retail store. Because of him, we have become one of the most respected tobacconists in the industry.

Thank you all for your continued patronage, and here’s to the next 60 years!