The Old Tobacco Shop
In a lot of ways tobacco-shops have always been different from other shops. They have got their own atmosphere, an atmosphere one might say of intimacy and quiet. How unlike many any other shops.. Ever been on a Saturday in stores like V&D and H&M? Hurried buyers and sellers, pushing customers wanting to be attended to as soon as possible.. Blah.. I get pretty stressed out in those environments.
In a tobacco-shop hardly anybody ever seems to be in a hurry. Here a person likes to talk about the goods to be bought. About their taste, smell, quality and (very important) price. The intimate relation between the tobacconist and his customer originates from this. A relation one finds almost nowhere else these days. The seller who knows his customer’s taste and preference. For example, tobacconist Willem Schimmel knows that when he has a new sweet aromatic, he does not need to bother me with it. I like the more natural blends. I never understood the buyer who puts his money on the counter, saying: the usual… On which the packet of tobacco, the box of cigars or the cigarettes are pushed towards him so he can leave the store in a hurry. Relaaaax…
The true smoker loves to have a look round first. He enjoys the almost mysterious fragrance which you can smell in every tobacco-shop while he is fascinated by the articles displayed. When I walk into Willem’s store I directly go to the back and quietly look at the collection of pipes, displayed on several moving boards. Then I sit down on one of the chairs and wait for Willem to take tare of the customers in the shop. Usually one of his colleagues provide me with a cup of coffee, a glass of water or even a glass of whisky. When he is done he walks over to me, we shake hands, he asks how I and Ellen are doing and we chat away. That is how it used to be and still is in many tobacco-shops. Even though both the inside and the outside of the stores have undergone considerable changes in the course of time. We all know the modern tobacco-shop, where lots of brands of tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes are neatly packed on shelves or in open boxes and are asking to be bought. In glass show-cases there are pipes, expensive lighters and tobacco-pouches while on the counter the cheaper lighters invite one to light up a cigarette. But what was it like long ago? From prints and descriptions one may form a pretty accurate picture.
Originally tobacco was sold by the grocer-chemist, after all, tobacco is a stimulant. But around the year 1630 there was a change-over and the selling took place in the intimate sphere of the tobacco-inn. Thus the dear old inn became the place where tobacco and smoker became true “lovers”. On and behind the counter of such an inn there were rolls of twisted tobacco. These were being cut into pieces by a small cutting-machine. The pieces were then stacked behind the counter. The scales that were present point to the fact that the retail trade did not take place by length, but by weight. As it still is today.
The combination of shop and inn continued throughout the 17th century. But it appears that as early as the third quarter of the 17th century, these two gradually parted company. As the preparation of tobacco was perfected, the inside of the shop varied. The increased use of taking snuff had a big influence. During the whole of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century the interior was affected by methods of storing snuff and pipe tobacco, necessary for the sale. Besides that, there was always the sale of pipes and other smoker’s requisites. Since the middle of the first half of the 19th century the fact that cigars were being sold was getting strikingly noticeable in the interior of the shop. Today cigarettes and cigars are the most important items in many tobacco-shops. A lot still have a board with some pipes on it and some pipe-tobacco but the profound knowledge of those items is often sorely lacking..
In the 2nd half of the 18th century tea, coffee, cocoa and tobacco were sold in the same business. This combination also originated in the public drinking and smoking places. Between 1670 and 1690 many coffee-houses were founded in the Netherlands. Just as it once was a long time ago in Turkey, coffee and tobacco became inseparable. These coffee-houses developed into a kind of “drinking and chatting houses”, different from the older tobacco-inn where liquor was generally sold. In the coffee-houses no liquor was sold at first. At about the same time the fashion came of drinking tea. Which gave rise to the forming of tea-clubs. Thus tea was also sold in the coffee-houses. But not only the finished product was to be enjoyed there: the “raw material” was on sale here too. The combined sale of tobacco, tea and coffee continues up to the present day in a few tobacco-shops. A nice example is “De Compagnie” which is situated in the lovely city of Breda.
Ok, let’s use the DeLorean DMC-12 car from the Back to the Future movies to go back to the year 1780 and visit a tobacco-shop in a town bearing the name of “the Amerongen Tobacco-planter” (“De Amerongensche Tabakker”). The shopkeeper also sells tea and coffee but let’s focus on the tobacco. In front, near the door, we see a statuette representing an Amerongen tobacco-planter. It holds a bunch of tobacco in one hand and a something that looks like a carrot of snuff-tobacco in the other one. Remember, in these days a considerable amount of snuff is still being sold. In the “Amerongen Tobacco-planter”, the snuff is kept in jars of the nicest Delft blue, which draw our attention immediately when we enter the shop. Snuff is sold in small quantities from those jars. At the back of the shop is a small hand-snuff-mill and on the counter is a large rasp. In this way the shopkeeper can deliver the snuff as fresh as possible.
The pipe-tobacco is kept in casks of which there are a dozen in the shop. These casks are numbered from 1 to 12 and contain the various finer qualities. The cheaper and more ordinary kinds of tobacco are stored in some larger barrels. This way of storage guarantees the right condition of the tobacco. The shopkeeper is able to prepare the mixture his customers choose, each according to their taste. In the best shops the name of every customer is entered in the “mixture-book”. This way the composition of every client’s special mixture always is at hand. The old Dunhill store was famous for this and the My Own Blend concept was based upon it. Also every shopkeeper got his own “spécialité de la maison” (speciality of the house, house-blends). Thus the “Amerongen tobacco-planter” is famous for his “delicate, genuine Oronoco tobacco” (“delicate opregte Oronoco toeback”) which the shopkeeper prepares according to a very old recipe. Today tobacco-shops in for example Germany and the USA still have their own house-blends.
The twisted tobacco is cut on the cutting-frame and is put in the cartridge-block, in which the bags are shaped and filled. Beside the cartridge-block are the sheets of paper, ready to be made into bags. In the middle they bear the trade-mark of the tobacco-dealer. Finally the filled bag is weighed on the brass scales which have the shape of an upside down helmet.
Behind the beautiful brass-clamped walnut desk the money is changed. When the customer (who also bought a dozen churchwardens) has left the shop, the shopkeeper enters the amount of money received in his cash-book by means of a goose-quill. After that he fills his own pipe. He lights it by means of the glowing embers in the brazier on the counter. Then there is perfect peace and quiet in that shop in 1780. Only occasionally do we hear the sound of a horse. The blue snuff-jars with brass lids reflect the rays of sunshine entering through the paned windows. In this peaceful atmosphere the shopkeeper waits for his next customer.