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The 200-Year-Old Business That Could Go Up In Smoke

It’s survived world wars, upheavals, recessions, and is still standing. Sturk’s Tobacconists must be one of the oldest operating stores in Africa. But now it’s battling against the world crackdown on smoking.

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It is the faint whiff of tobacco that turns your head as you walk through Cape Town’s cobbled Greenmarket Square. All around are tourists with coffee in hand and people talking business in sidewalk bars. Everything you can see is like modern cosmopolitan to the cries of hawkers selling African art under canvas.

Here among the new, you will find – amid clouds of smoke – the ancient, in terms of African shops.

Sturk’s Tobacconists opened its doors in Greenmarket Square on August 1, 1793, and hasn’t closed them. The business seems durable to say the least. In recent times #FeesMustFall students fought pitched battles near the doorstep of Sturk’s – even then it did not close its doors.

This 223-year-old store, which is older than the Louvre in Paris by nine days, is now owned by Alan Phillips, a former customer and bartender from Benoni in Johannesburg.

“Smoking a pipe isn’t something you just pick up and smoke and enjoy. There is a process. It’s not for everybody. The pipe bug hit and then I became a client of Sturk’s,” says Phillips, leaning on the store’s hardwood counter.

Phillips is not just the owner, he is also a student of the history of the store. The likes of Cape governors and even at one time Winston Churchill visited it.

“Originally the entire building was [Hendrick] Sturk’s. He was a general dealer. At that stage the Cape governor’s house is where the South African Museum in Company’s Garden is. This was the CBD, it’s where everything happened. This square is where you bought your vegetables.”

Inside are relics that tell the passage of time. Phillips weighs his blended pipe tobacco on the company’s 200-year-old scale. Around him are ceramic pots that have also survived a couple of wars. Sitting next to them are vials of tobacco flavorant gathering dust in the rafters. Even World War II posters, found in a bunker in France, were brought here to add to the flavor of another time.

“Look, we’re a specialty shop. You can buy cigarettes pretty much anywhere, the street vendor the grocer, wherever.  Tobacco is our bread and butter. We blend it ourselves. When I talk about a niche business, you cannot buy a blend we produce anywhere other than where we are sitting now. We do cigarette shag and pipe tobacco blended to our own specifications, through age-old recipes.”

The sweet scent of tobacco may have layered onto these walls over two centuries, but in the uncertain 21st century the store is suffering hard times.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause. 2015 and 2016 have not been good years. The three main factors are new smoking laws, global economics and South Africa visa laws which affected us severely.”

Ten years ago, Sturk’s would sell an average of at least 80 kilograms of tobacco blend a month. By 2011, it was 70 kilograms. These days, Phillips sells 50 kilograms.

The tobacco industry has taken a huge knock globally as tighter health restrictions have been imposed. In 2013, Phillips says the South African Department of Health cracked down on smoking laws. These included store owners using designated smoking shelf zones, restrictions on advertising, and higher taxes.

Phillips’ main worry is a pending amendment which, if enforced, could reduce his shelf space to a mere four square meters.

“This business sells tobacco related items only. Four square meters is going to be a problem. I cannot fit a thousand stock units in four square meters, it’s absolutely impossible.”

“I can understand the Department of Health’s point of view, it’s for health reasons. But the revenue generated through tobacco tax is huge,” he says.

Coupled with tighter laws is a decrease in tourists and a grinding South African economy.

“Although, the business can’t count on the tourism factor, as we recently found out with the visa debacle that was happening with the unabridged birth certificates, it knocked down tourism figures significantly, and our business.”

On this morning, a number of curious customers trickle in. Phillips gets up to weigh out a 50-gram pack of his tobacco blend which sells for R55 ($4) to a pipe smoker. Another customer gets his lighter filled at no charge.

“I generally buy loose tobacco in five-kilogram bundles which we then blend and repack. I try to keep cigarette turnover under 20% of total. The margins on cigarettes are very low,” he says.

Opposite the counter is Phillips’ pride and joy, an assortment of smoking pipes, hanging in fluorescent light for all to see.

“What you see here, hasn’t been purchased quickly to give a look to the shop. This is the way the shop has always looked. I’m sitting on around 150, I haven’t bothered to count in the last year or two,” he says.

Some of the pieces in Phillips’ collection can cost as much as R3,000 ($225). The collection may not be up for sale, but Phillips does sell high-end pipes on the rare occasion. His biggest sale was an order for a Dunhill Christmas pipe for R9,000 ($670).

“[Pipe smoking is] exclusive, you don’t see many men with pipes, you hardly see any women with pipes. The options of the tobacco are almost endless. There is a difference in aromas, in flavors and one can blend to ones heart’s content to make something bespoke for you.”

Phillips holds a favorite from his collection. The South African-made pipe has a long stem – called a lovat – that has been rusticated in a well-known Italian Castello style.

“New, this guy would retail at R3,000. Which one would think is rather a lot of money, but considering the cost of the material and the time required to produce a pipe like this, it means the pipe maker is only earning about R100 an hour. Which is not fair on the pipe maker, but it is what it is.”

As it becomes more difficult to sell his wares, Phillips is doing the best he can to swim with his head above water.

“Talking about adaptation though, we’ve supplemented the decline in volume with newer smokeless products like snus and vaping.”

As the discussion finishes he gets up from the counter and adds: “Survival is about adaption, you see.”

Survival is going to be as tough as being a smoker in urban Africa.

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