Georgetown Tobacco at 58: Founder David Berkebile Looks Back Gratefully


Tomorrow, Georgetown Tobacco celebrates it 58th anniversary — pretty good for a business that might be seen as unique to another time and place.

There’s the beauty and longevity of the store at 3144 M St. NW and its founder and owner, David Berkebile, who established his business on March 15, 1964, with a $5,000 loan from his father.

The cigar, pipe and tobacco store is a charming throwback, armed with modern business savvy in marketing the art of smoking in the 21st century. Online sales are strong. The male-centric classic also sells cuff links and other men’s accessories, such as canes and Venetian Carnival masks, because that’s what Berkebile likes.

“You know, I didn’t start out wanting to be a tobacconist,” he tells The Georgetowner. “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.”

Today, Berkebile says, “I’m feeling philosophical. Life goes on. I’m maintaining my equilibrium and my happiness. I was a kid when I started out being unsure how the business would do. Now, having seen it grow — it’s a little store, unique, and has stayed that way. Being born in Georgetown and working here has been an enriching experience.”

He recounts marrying his high school sweetheart Sandy from his days at Western High School, now Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Also, on his grateful list are the employees who have been with him, on and off, through the years: Walter Gorski, Teresa Wessling and Alex Grigorian, to name a few — even his daughter Renee.

Berkebile does smoke the odd cigar in a savoring, expert slow pleasure kind of way. “Cigar smoking and pipe smoking,” he says, “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. “Dads don’t hand out cigars when a baby’s born anymore,” he adds. “Gone, like whistling.”

This unique store was created by moving an 1880 apothecary from Pennsylvania, accented by tobacco hands hanging from the ceiling and antique cigar store figures. The decor — and fragrance of the place — speaks to part of Georgetown’s economic history: it was once the biggest tobacco exporting port in America.

Georgetown Tobacco has its neighborhood regulars, of course, but it has become, as Berkebile says, “a destination for many travelers when in Washington, D.C. and the variety of the people we meet and conversations we share have helped make this business so rewarding to all of us.”

Berkebile says he is grateful to all the people he has met through his business — many now simply his friends — but he is enough of businessman to know that the present-day problems for the business are supply chain issues as well as the state of retail in Georgetown.

As for the future, Berkebile is not quite ready to discuss that. All we know is that Georgetown has been all the better for this unique business and its owner for at least 58 years. 

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