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Monday, October 18, 2021

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Chicago tobacconist Iwan Ries owners talk legacy, history, future – Crain’s Chicago Business

At Iwan Ries & Co., the Wabash Avenue tobacconist in Chicago, owner Chuck Levi was forced by the pandemic to cut back his work schedule over the past year. He’s on the store’s sales floor just two days a week now, spending the rest of his time ordering pipes and cigars and lighters from an office at home during a workweek that continues to stretch past 50 hours overall. 

Levi, it should be noted, has an excuse for his absences that goes beyond concerns about COVID exposure. He’s 84 years old, and has been working the sales floor at Ries practically every day since he started at the place out of school in 1959. That’s 62 years at work and counting, with his wife Susie also working in the store most of that time. 

There’s plenty of family precedent for Levi’s longevity. His father Stan ran the business from 1951 into the 1990s, coming in every day for work practically until he died at age 91. In fact, the company was incorporated back in 1857, well before the Civil War broke out and the Chicago Fire leveled the city’s downtown business district, by Stan’s grandfather, a German immigrant named Edward Hoffman. Thus Ries, named for Hoffman’s son-in-law, has had just four owners in its 164-year history. A check of local records indicates that Ries is one of the very oldest continuously-operating concerns in all of Chicago, exceeded perhaps only by real estate brokerage Baird & Warner, founded in 1855. 

The next generation seems assured, with Chuck’s son Kevin, 51, standing to inherit Ries eventually, though beyond that is anyone’s guess. Tobacco is a tough business these days, with government taxes and laws making smoking both expensive and illegal in most public spaces. Three of Chuck Levi’s grandchildren—nephews and nieces of Kevin’s—have left the firm to go on to other things in the face of such dubious prospects. 

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In the catalogue that Ries issues each year, the history of the single store enterprise, headquartered in the Adler & Sullivan Jeweler’s Building dating to 1880, is dutifully recounted. But does it matter to anybody? Chuck notes that he’s surrounded in the Loop these days by vacant storefronts, with many of his old cigar shop rivals long gone. “Today’s younger generation doesn’t care about the history. They don’t care what you did yesterday, in fact,” Levi says. “It’s only about what you can do for me today or tomorrow. It’s all a discount mentality now.” 

For his part, Kevin Levi doesn’t let the history weigh too heavily on his back. “I think about our history as history, not as a pressure cooker that forces us to stay in business at all costs,” he says. “If we can’t keep going it’s not the end of the world. Closing for the right reasons would be OK with me.” 

For now, the family soldiers on. Sales are down by almost two-thirds since the start of the pandemic to well below $3 million annualized, and the headcount of employees has fallen from a dozen to just seven. 

What keeps Ries ticking? For one there is the service and century-old product knowledge. The Levis can take a novice through his first pipe purchase by demonstrating how to pack and light and smoke the hundreds of tobaccos they keep in stock. “Along with their legacy they have great know-how that our members appreciate,” says Tim Garrity, president of the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club. 

The expertise goes only so far. Odd in this era of just-in-time, Ries maintains perhaps the biggest inventory of pipes housed within any single tobacco store in the U.S., with the current count at 8,000, down from 12,000 in the pipe-smoking heyday of the 1960s. Customers want selection above all else, Chuck Levi believes, even if that means his average pipe takes 2 ½ years to sell. “You never want customers to hear that you don’t have something,” he says. “Don’t let customers hear the word ‘no’ at all. Tell them you’ll get them exactly the product they want or something close to it or whatever, but once you say no they stop listening to you immediately.”

That approach has given Ries a worldwide reputation among tobacco connoisseurs. It isn’t unusual to see customers land in the store with luggage in hand, explaining they had a three-hour layover at O’Hare awaiting a connecting flight and didn’t want to miss out on a Ries visit. 

The biggest lesson for other retail store owners, however, may be Chuck Levi’s appetite for work. By now both his knees are shot and his body aches all over from standing every day on the sales floor. “Chuck got this devotion to the business from his father. A schedule like his was the way a family company operated back in the day,” says Chris Felts, a wholesaler of high-end Dunhill pipes based near Nashville. “When I visit to stage a trunk show once a year my feet are killing me after a couple of days. The fact that Chuck has been doing this for 60 years amazes me.”

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