You never know what you might find in Georgetown Tobacco, that’s for sure. It’s not the only tobacco shop in the Washington area, but it’s probably the most original one. It is absolutely the most enduring, and it’s one-of-a-kind shop in Georgetown, now celebrating its 47th anniversary.
I’m looking at a Georgetowner cover dated July 1-15, 1992. That’s when we interviewed David Berkebile, the founder, owner and president of Georgetown Tobacco. Interview may be too formal a word, really. It was more like catching up, getting re-acquainted, with the occasional question thrown in. And all along, there was the enticing, oddly comforting aroma of pipes and cigar tobacco permeating the walls of the building.
It’s exactly the kind of time you expect to pass at Georgetown Tobacco if you just happen to wander in, drawn by the atmosphere, the humidors, the eccentrically beautiful masks and as many bearded gentlemen.
I’m looking at the picture, from a watercolor collage by David Connell from 1992, with Berkebile, wearing a checkered shirt, red tie, holding a cigar in his right hand, smoke trailing up. There’s a box of Los Puros cigars below to the left, a storefront Indian, a smoothly curved pipe to the right, an old-fashioned cash register, a wooden duck, tobacco leaves, boxes of shop items under glass and the store façade.
On the surface, nothing much has changed except that nineteen years went by. Berkebile, a navy vet, a homegrown guy, a Georgetown resident, look s about the same. In fact, he looks pretty good for a guy who’s squeezed by 70. He’s got a mustache now, another checkered shirt and a cigar in his hand, just as before.
This is on the third floor of the shop, where few venture. I don’t know why: you could open a museum with it and likely get people to trudge up the narrow stairs just to see what’s there. It’s a little museum of Americana.
“I like to collect stuff,” he says, matter of factly. “These posters—they’re Belle Epoch—I got into it and it’s fascinating, the history.” He does a little selling and buying and things pile up. There’s a stuffed vulture, an American eagle, a bellhop and a bust of Groucho Marx, books on antique posters, and advertisements from the turn of the century.
“You know, I didn’t start out wanting to be a tobacconist, “he said. “It wasn’t a great passion of mine. I mean, I smoked a pipe in the navy, but that was it…I learned a lot, often from the people who worked for me. I like to learn things. It never stops.”
Back in the 1990s, he talked about the romance of cigars and pipes and it was apt. “Oh boy, there was a real boom in cigars. It became something of a trendy thing, with cigar rooms and the cigars, expensive ones, becoming a kind of power symbols for men.”
He does smoke the odd cigar in a savoring, expert slow pleasure kind of way. “Cigar smoking and pipe smoking,” he said, “they’re about savoring, taking your time. Not chain smoking round the clock.”
But even there, in that store suspended in time, some things have disappeared. “Dad’s don’t hand out cigars when a baby’s born anymore,” he said. “Gone, like whistling.”
You can get a product list on the Georgetown Tobacco website, brands of cigars, pipes, tobacco and the masks and posters and stuff. What you can’t get is the quiet quality of a kind of island, where people sort of talk, quietly, and they usually know what they’re talking about. You won’t get the employee loyalty and memories on the website.
Berkebile is not much of a self-promoter. He’s what you might call a person of interest—not in a criminal sense, but in the sense that everything in that building says something about him, where he came from, what he thinks, what he’s curious about.
He works at getting things right. He’s known as one of Georgetown’s good citizens. After two marriages he married Sandy, his high school sweetheart from his days at Western High School, now Duke Ellington School for the Arts. He lives in Georgetown, a place he loves as much as he loves the salient people in his life, his three daughters and Sandy’s three sons. He loves the store; he talks to people here, he kicks backs, he can look around his office and see his life story from the surrounding collection of trinkets, posters, statues and pipes.
From a seat on the third floor, he can see M street and its facades, he can smell the aroma wafting up from below, and he can feel the texture of his life.
Georgetown Tobacco is located at 3144 M Street, NW, or just follow the smell of fragrant pipe tobacco until you see the beautiful Victorian masks in the window. For more information visit Georgetown Tobacco online.