The oldest tobacconist in South Africa is one of the latest economic victims of Covid-19. Sturk’s, after 226 years in business has closed its doors.
It’s always sad to see an old business close its doors but this touches on a very sensitive topic and one that is dividing South Africa during these times of Covid-19: the ban on all tobacco products. A committee of more than 20 ministers and department heads meet daily to monitor the crisis and regulations for the State of Disaster that we find ourselves in. They have stubbornly stuck to their guns for more than 2 months regarding the now banned sale of all tobacco products. 90% of smokers are still smoking and it is all contraband. Smugglers and illicit tobacco dealers are thriving – the industry is driven by the same people who normally deal in street drugs. The state is losing R35 million ($2 million) every day in taxes, and the criminal syndicates are raking in millions. The price of a packet of cigarettes has soared to five times the normal price. Many people who are still buying cigarettes are unemployed, or dependent on state grants, or both. They are literally smoking their children’s food budget.
Sturk’s opened in August 1793 and was a general dealer at first. Over the years the shop became smaller and smaller and eventually specialised in all things smoking. From my days as a smoker I remember it as a tiny quirky shop that smelt like my father’s pipe. All I ever bought there were cigarettes. I no longer smoke but a pipe-smoking friend is distraught to hear Sturk’s will no longer provide him his pipe tobacco. Mind you, my friend still misses the owner, Abe Bravo, who passed away some time back. Sturk’s and Abe made the perfect blend, you see. A bit of this Virginia and a bit of that milder one and this special Turkish shag for extra flavour. The result was Private Blend number 17 which apparently became popular with other customers. He knew all his regulars. My friend remembers a time when Abe asked him if his pipe lighter was still working properly. “Because another regular fell on hard times and sold me this wonderful old lighter. I can let you have it for a good price.” You won’t get that sort of personal service, or quality, from your corner shop, or the supermarket where most South Africans tend to buy their baccy, when they can.
Everything the smoker wanted, was to be found at Sturks. All the paraphernalia from humble pipe cleaners to an impressive collection of antique pipes. As one walked past the entrance the aroma was not unpleasant – a pure good quality tobacco smells a lot more pleasant than a cigarette! When South Africa’s new smoking laws became very restrictive about 20 years ago, sales dropped along with the habits of many smokers. Old-school tobacconists like Sturk’s were few and far between, but Sturk’s remained, albeit smaller and less busy than in previous eras. Everyone in Cape Town knew Sturk’s. Now it is no more.
Sturk’s was located on Greenmarket Square – historically the official centre of the city and the venue for the first fresh-produce market. The cobbled square is now a thriving draw card for tourists who want souvenirs and sidewalk meals or just a coffee, but for many the best part is the architecture. There are magnificent art deco buildings that echo parts of New York – my favourite is Market House. Another one is now a hotel but was originally Shell offices and you can still see the logo on the plaster. If you stand in the middle of the square and pivot 360 degrees you will see what the city centre is famous for – a diversity of architecture from the earliest oldest buildings to the very latest glass-front. Quite an impressive sight, and site.
This central area of town is an integral part of our city tours but unfortunately a big gap will be left by the little store that was Sturk’s Tobacconists.