'I Was Smoking a Pipe And I Just Got the Idea'
Twenty-five per week, zero on most weekends.
That’s how many cigars David Berkebile smokes.
‘It’s not an addiction, but it’s a comfort,’ says the owner of Georgetown Tobacco—a neighborhood institution that’s been in business for 53 years. ‘It’s very helpful with stress. I have many older men who didn’t start to smoke until their 50s and they say, ‘God, I wish I’d started earlier.’’
Rarely can you anticipate every path you’ll be drawn down in the course of a life. David knows that well.
At 24—with two kids, a wife, and the dream of owning a business—David was walking around, smoking a pipe from the Navy, when he had an idea. A tobacco shop seemed as good a business as any.
‘I went around thinkin’ about different things, got the idea the first of January in 1964 and opened up the 15th of March,’ David says.
David didn’t have any money. His father didn’t, either—mortgaging his house to lend his son $5,000.
‘I went to a distributor and said I have $5,000 and he said forget about it, you’ll never make it.’
More than half a century later, David is the only owner left in Georgetown who still runs the business he founded. His first location was a small, 400-square-foot store down the road. He outgrew the space in 1970, trading locations with a pawn shop owner at 3144 M St.
He was no stranger to the area. David grew up in Georgetown, occasionally helping his mom at Woolworth’s—now the Urban Outfitters across the street from Georgetown Tobacco. The commercial district was markedly different then, as was the residential neighborhood.
‘This was a blue-collar, farming town,’ David says. ‘I had a yard full of ducks that I’d sell or take for walks up to Sibley Hospital, back when you could do that sort of thing. I collected magazines and newspapers and took them to the junk yard down here. And there was a rendering plant with a big smokestack that used to render leftover animal flesh into fuel. Smoke came out of those big stacks and they flavored it with vanilla to make it palatable. It was a semi-industrial town in those days. Of course, it’s gone through many transitions.’
Georgetown Tobacco has been here for many of them. In particular, David recalls the 1968 riots—the National Guard standing watch at the corner of M St. and Wisconsin Avenue. ‘I put brown paper on the store windows with a sign that said ‘for rent’ and we never had any trouble. But it was kind of scary for three or four days.’
More recently, David has weathered a one-two punch to his business: The simultaneous increase in anti-smoking regulations and the effect Amazon has had on many independent businesses.
‘We have small batch cigars that you can’t get from any place except a brick and mortar, but we don’t discount’ David says. ‘And now you can’t smoke in most places. You can smoke outside, you can smoke in your garage. You’d be a fool if you smoked in your house—you’ll never get the smell out. So it’s getting harder and harder.’
Still, David welcomes new cigar enthusiasts weekly—from local college students to husbands and wives—the latter ‘not just adjuncts, but cigar smokers, too.’
And then there’s the regulars—a select few who come upstairs to David’s office at night and play poker, chess and backgammon.
Talk cigars, too.
All of Georgetown Tobacco’s inventory comes from The Dominican, Honduras, and Nicaragua. David says Nicaragua accounts for the largest volume; The Dominican, the most expensive. Davidoff cigars are the biggest line throughout the store, which also include the Winston Churchill. One of the most popular individual blends is a formula David created himself during a 2009 trip to Rocky Patel’s factory in Honduras.
Its name? The Caucus. We’re in Washington, DC, after all.
For how long is another question. David is in the store almost every day, and after 53 years, he’ll be the first to tell you it’s ‘the details that get ya.’ His stepson, who is autistic, has also worked there for 20 years, packing tobacco and cleaning.
‘It’s a nice function for him and something for him to do,’ David says. ‘He’s popular. He was not outward at all like he is today when he started here.’
But David’s children have no desire to take over the business, each with their own careers or kids, or both. After 21 years living on 30th Street, he’s also recently moved out of Georgetown. A family house in Arlington was left to him, and David and his wife decided one level would better suit their age.
The cigars remain the constant—‘the wonderful relief.’
David draws slowly from the one in his mouth, swirling and savoring the smoke.