James Leavey's Corner
The Ladies Who Do

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
Inside the US Senate in Washington D.C., I recently spotted the following graffiti, "Where there's smoke, there's tobacco."I wish I'd added, "In Britain where there's fine cigars, there are usually women selling them."Not as amusing, perhaps, but a fact that has been known to make male chauvinist cigar smokers salivate.For when most men are confronted by a woman with a cigar in her mouth, the last thing on their mind is what brand she's smoking.

Raising our tone from the gutter, Amandine Dupin, better known as the 19th century French novelist, George Sand, was the first woman to smoke in public, usually, "a cigar that fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images".True, she often dressed as a man so perhaps nobody really noticed.

Dupin/Sand was also the lover of the Polish composer, Frederic Chopin, and loved to scandalise bourgeois society with her unconventional behaviour, such as igniting an Havana at breakfast. Why they made such a fuss is a mystery to me as women have enjoyed fine cigars since Havanas were first introduced to Europe several centuries ago.

Judith Hatton, co-author with Lord Ralph Harris of Murder a Cigarette (Duckworth, £7.95), an eloquent look at the smoking debate, told me that her father was in Burma at the turn of the century and described the country's female inhabitants as: "the most beautiful women in the world but they would smoke cigars all the time and never took them out of their mouths."Later, he went to Mexico where the senoritas also chain-smoked cigars but apparently they took them out of their mouths occasionally, for him anyway.He probably charmed the birds out of the trees.

One of the most charming people I know is Greenock-born Jean Clark, who has been working in Harrods' world famous ground floor cigar department in Knightsbridge on behalf of JJ Fox for ten years, the last six of them as manager. In December 1998, a new cigar bar was opened in the lower ground floor, and a month later Jean flew to Havana to attend the annual 'Cigars Oscars', where she was nominated as one of the world's top three cigar retailers.

Over the years, Jean has encouraged Britain's top craftsmen to produce new designs for unique cigar accessories, such as the huge, one-off, hand-made humidor that has two secret compartments full of 'cigar goodies', made to commemorate the store's 150th anniversary this year.

Are women taking over in the cigar world""Well, God is a woman," said Jean, who takes the occasional puff of most of the cigars she sells, "so you never know!"

Another famous London store is Selfridges, where Emma Tranter has worked for JJ Fox in the busy ground floor tobacco department for the last three years - as assistant manager since June 1998.Prior to university, Emma worked part-time for her father, Richard Tranter, who recently sold his popular cigar shop in Bath.

Why did she join JJ Fox""I needed a change and the job was available," explained Emma, who prefers 42 to 50 ring gauge cigars. "What probably helped was that it is unusual for a young female to have experience in selling cigars.

"Selfridges is a very lively, trendy store which is constantly changing. It allows us to experiment with new and exciting lines particularly in accessories.We also have several restaurants and cafes where you can smoke, similar to Harrods, especially the wine bar adjacent to our department, which will be expanding soon".

"We're getting a lot of younger cigar smokers mostly male, although I do have several regular female customers who enjoy coming in to have a chat or advice on what cigars to try."

JJ Fox also runs Benson & Hedges at 13 Old Bond Street, where Angela Buxton has been manager for about 18 months.The tobacco shop recently celebrated its first 125 years. "The cigar world is a very small, friendly community," said Angela, who loves smoking fine cigars."They call it a gentlemen's industry which to an extent is very true.Women add a certain cache to it."

Judith Braithwaite, senior buyer at the Davidoff shop on the corner of Jermyn and St James's Street, has been selling cigars since Edward Sahakarian first opened his elegant shop in 1980. Previously she was a fashion buyer.

What got her into cigars" "I happened to be working in Jermyn Street at the time and one day I was in the coffee shop directly opposite Davidoff," said Judith, who likes the occasional petit corona or panatella, and recommended Davidoff'snew cigar, the Short T, which is expected to be launched in June.

"Edward noticed me and invited me along to an interview. I told him I knew nothing about cigars. 'Nor do I,' he replied. 'We'll learn together.' That's what made me decide to work for him and I have never looked back since."

If you're a cigar smoker flying out of London you will probably bump into Sue Debling, who manages The Cigar House at Heathrow Terminal One, which opened about a year ago.

Or there's Esther Lilley known as Lily, who works at TomTom Cigars, just around the corner from Victoria Coach Station.The shop also opened about a year ago to great success and has just been gutted and totally refurbished, resulting in the virtual doubling of the shop's retail area.

What's her favourite cigar" "I like anything that's aged and medium-sized," said Lily, who assured me this was only coincidentally a fair description of her manager, affable cigar expert, Michael Croley.

Fancy a weekend break in Blackpool"Why not pop into Birchalls, about 100 yards from the famous seaside town's north pier.Now the oldest shop in Blackpool, it first opened in Preston in 1834 before it transferred to the coast at the turn of the century. Vanessa Parkinson has been the shop's manager since 1987.

Another cigar haven frequented by tourists as well as locals is Tobacco World in the Regent Arcade, Cheltenham.It was set up eleven years ago by Ann Kelly and her husband, Peter, who also ran tobacco shops in Chester and Lllandudno.

North of the border, Joyce Taylor has been at Herbert Love in Edinburgh's West End for about 12 years, the last eight of them as manager.

"When I first started, my old boss strongly believed that women could not serve a gentleman a cigar.When he retired I proved him wrong," said Joyce who enjoys cigars, cigarettes and the occasional pipeful of tobacco."The only thing I haven't tried is snuff.I love a double corona if I've got time, especially a Hoyo de Monterrey no 2, or a Montecristo no 2, when you can get a hold of them."

Lately she has had some success encouraging Scottish women smokers to move away from cheap whiffs and on to small premium cigars made from 100% fine tobacco. "They're better off," said Joyce, "not smoking cigarettes!"

Muriel White has been manager of the Herbert Love shop in Ayr for the last 25 years.Has she had any flack lately from Scotland's anti-smoking puritans""Och, just the usual smart remarks," said Muriel, who admitted she likes a "wee cigar now and then", particularly a small Upmann or Petit Punch.

"I think they have far more serious problems before starting in on smokers. I get right onto my soap-box about this.Smokers can smoke umpteen cigarettes and cigars and are still the same sort of person but this is not true of drinkers."

Copyright James Leavey, 1999.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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