Historic tobacconist decides to quit

It has survived economic slumps, hostile legislation and changes in fashion, such as the rise of the vape. But now the Cape Town landmark, Sturk’s Tobacconists, is to shut up shop.

Sturk’s Tobacconists has called Greenmarket Square home since 1793. But, because of the lockdown, the shop has had no business for more than two months. With the ban on the sale of tobacco products still in place, Sturk’s is unable to pay rent and with its lease coming up for renewal, owner Diane Chakim has decided to lock up and move out. 

“In its entire history, the shop has only moved once, and that was to shift to bigger premises a couple of shops away,” Chakim said. “It was in the Sturk family for a few generations and was sold several times before our family bought it in the 1960s.” 

The lockdown has been the undoing of many small businesses. The owners bemoan what they say is meagre or non-existent support from the government and landlords.

“When the lockdown started at the end of March, we were really hopeful, and for a week or two and we were very understanding,” Chakim said. “Now it’s June. Yet there’s no shortage of cigarettes — the illicit trade is booming.  

“I can’t afford to pay rent in perpetuity and not trade. At the same time, the lease is expiring, so I had to leave. The landlord tried to help, but not as much as we needed. 

“This pandemic is going to have a long-term effect on small business. So many stores are packing up.”

Chakim said the tobacco trade has faced numerous challenges since her father first bought the business. These included new legislation to discourage people from smoking and the proliferation of pavement vendors and cigarette sales at many other outlets.

She said the shop had made its mark by blending its own tobacco for pipe smokers and importing cigars and pipe products. 

“Smoking will always be around. Yes, trends have changed: people are now smoking more loose tobacco and there is a huge trend towards e-cigarettes and vapes. But it will never stop,” Chakim said. 

For now, the shop’s stock is being kept in off site storage with lights and humidifiers installed to keep valuable items in good condition. 

Chakim said she hopes Sturk’s can return to new premises in the city when the tobacco sales ban is lifted. 

“The Greenmarket Square shop is an institution, but we still have the brand. People will follow,” she said.

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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