May 24, 2011

The Tobacconist Extraordinaire

Sol Levy is a Legitimate Businessman, and he is Angry.

Or at least, that's the picture of Sol Levy that forms in my head, as I stand outside his shop, in a ratty part of George Street, Sydney.


Take a Trip Down Memory Lane reads the canary yellow vertical sign outside the shuttered main door. It is Friday night, around 10 o'clock.

18+ only it continues, in bold red type for a break. The air is cool, but not biting. My light jacket and scarf suffice.

And then, my favourite part - Treasures Revealed on Request.

I was looking for late-night eats in Chinatown, just a hop/skip from my hotel. I realise when I pass The Pleasure Chest and a number of pawn shops (including Aceben's - "The MONEY LENT People") that I am probably headed in the wrong direction.

But something about Sol Levy's window display catches my eye. Makes me stop, and turn back. Draws in my gaze. Perhaps it is the large novelty Swiss Army Knife, complete with moving blades, scissors and bottle opener. Perhaps it is the 1998 copy of Cigar Aficianado magazine, with a contemplative watercolour JFK on the cover, stogie in hand. Perhaps it is the simply the bright, stark, fluorescent light.

It is a place out of time.

My first indication of Sol Levy's anger was the sign, home-printed in Arial on a purple piece of A4.

As a tobacconist, we carry a range of legal-to-sell products for the tobacco user.  
And, by the way, collect and pay heaps to the government.
Please ask our sales staff. It is our pleasure to serve you.

This one in white:

Can't see what you are looking for in this old established tobacconist. 
Please ask our sales staff. It is our pleasure to serve you.

This in yellow:

In accordance with the NSW Government Public Health (Tobacco) Act 2008 we are prohibited from displaying smoking products. 
We operate a legal business & will serve any person over the age of 18.

And I start to really look at what's displayed in Sol's window, apart from the passive-aggressive signs.

Zippo lighters.
Cigar humidors.
Cigarette holders.
Spinning ashtrays (No Smoke, No Smell).
Shaving brushes (100% Super Badger hair)

I realise - Sol's angry, because Sol can't sell no smokes no more.

The business was "Established 1890", according to the sign over the door.  Was that by the original Sol Levy, or an ancestor? No matter. Sol Levy has begun forming in my mind, and he exists now. He is older than middle age, say late 60s. He has grey hair that used to be black; he has thick glasses he balances at the end of his nose; and he often wears just a white singlet, slightly coffee-stained.

He is a Legitimate Businessman, despite the efforts of the Government, and the Media, and the Do-Gooders to take away his livelihood.

He can't advertise his tobacco. But he can tempt you. Treasures Revealed on Request.

He can also branch out, stack his window display with all manner of other products that might draw the interest of passing potential customers.

Male grooming products seem to have the edge, including a range of BARBERS SUPPLY hair washes, in such formulas as "Florida Water", "Bay Rum" and the mystifying "Icy Cold Shampoo". There's also a 'Cut Throat' Razor for the Sweeney Todd inclined. There are groomers, clippers and shavers, oh my. No stubble is safe in Sol Levy's window.

His quaint working hours (8:30am to 5:15pm, Monday to Friday, NO Saturdays, Sundays or public holidays, even though you could conceive people would be more tempted by the Goddess Nicotine on their weekends) are displayed on another sign, handpainted in the form of two clocks.

While noting three empty bottles of Carlton Draught and a Cadbury Twirl wrapper left forlornly beside the tiled step outside the shop window, I become aware of a group of people standing some seven or eight metres away. They are puffing on cigarettes, no doubt having left a nearby pub to do so. I realise they are watching me; and as I do so, one of the men detaches from the group and sidles up next to me, nodding and drawing on his rollie.

"Yep, interesting shop," he drawls. He wears white shorts and a black-and-white Quicksilver hoodie.

"You know much about it?" I reply.

"Nuh," he says. "But I know those tiles were done cheaply." He points his deteriorating cigarette towards the tiled step.

"You're a tiler?" I ask, and he nods in affirmation.

"The mosaics are breaking up," he says, indicating a section of the step where the black-and-white tiles are missing, exposing the concrete beneath. "Someone's used a cheap mortar on that, and when people sit on it, or put their feet up on it, it comes apart."

He moves back to the two blonde women he'd been smoking with. I hear him say loudly "She's an investigative reporter."

I blush, and move over towards them. "The shop just caught my eye," I explain. "In a time when smoking is becoming so marginalised, it's interesting to see this one guy still fighting to keep his business, to sell his wares."

Quicksilver guy stamps out his rollie on the ground and heads back into the pub. The Blondies though are still smoking, and are in that chatty stage that indicates a few - but not too many - drinks have been had.

"Oh, I hate that I smoke," says Blonde One.

"Yeah, it's awful, but I smoke when I go out, it's just what happens," says Blonde Two.

"They have to do something to stop more kids from smoking, 'cause they're still doing it," says Blonde One, exhaling.

"I have two young girls and I don't want them to smoke. I'm only smoking because this is the first time we've gone out in two years," says Blonde Two, leaning back against the brick wall.

"I mean, how many Australians still smoke these days? Nine per cent?" says Blonde One.

"I think it's still a little more than nine per cent," I interject, trying to remember the last Cancer Council statistics I read.

"Yeah - and they all live at Mascot!" Blonde Two jokes. "The bus stop I go to everyday is just a cloud of smoke!"

Blonde Two's husband turns up. He's a touch shorter than me, with a mischievous face. The Blondes fill him on why I'm there.

"This shop? This is a Monument to Death," he intones.

I laugh. I tell him I love its anachronistic charm.

"Well, I don't know what anachronism means," he says. I tell him it's something that's essentially "out of time".

"That's for sure," he says. "Do you know the history of the Haymarket?" I shake my head.

"I used to work at an office just up the road. All this area started as markets and stores and little traders. The Paddy's Markets are just around the corner. This shop's been here for well over 20 years."

"Is Sol Levy the current owner or manager?" I ask.

He drags on a cigarette. "I dunno. It's a family business though, a Jewish family. And I'm pretty sure they don't actually smoke themselves anymore, they just sell it."

No wonder Sol Levy is so angry. Nicotine withdrawals.

The two Blondes wander back into the pub, and Blonde Two's husband offers to buy me a drink. He says he's married, he's not trying anything on. I smile and say I know, I was just chatting to your wife.

I tell him I have an early flight and must fulfil my original purpose to find dinner. He goes back to the pub, and my eyes do a final sweep of Sol Levy's display.

The Tobacconist Extraordinaire. Does he have enough loyal customers who seek him out, rather than pick up a $17 pack of Holidays at the service station or supermarket? Are the clippers and razors and Zippos he sells enough to cover the shortfall? Can he survive the End of Smoking?

I walk away, somehow knowing I will probably never see the Treasures Revealed on Request. But I am grateful for having seen the wonder in the window. And I hope, when he retires, when he finally gives up the fight for the right to sell and smoke tobacco, that the Sol Levy who formed in my imagination can let go of his anger.


  1. Funny about memory - as soon as you said the name Sol Levy, I knew where the shop was, the grubby bit of George St down in the hollow between Central and the run back up to the cinemas (most dangerous part of Sydney in the hours you were there, just for the record). They're not all extinct - I get my hair cut at an old-school barbers and tobacconists here in town where I have the same conversation every three months about what I do for a gig and how the Highlanders are going. Like something out of 1971. It's awesome.

  2. Makes me shed a tear. I give thanks, and money, for the cigar lobby in Seppo-land. Sucks that we have to have to resort to such a thing.

    Nicely done.

  3. Our local barber/tobacconist had to diversify. They now also sell lotto. It keeps the business from folding in a heartbeat.

    But that's just a side issue. The important thing here is - WHERE can I find a pack of Holidays for only $17? Please, please tell!

  4. I liked this humorous write up about the businessman. Diversification is the key to success in any business.

    Honeymoon in Goa

  5. It's like the weird shop from The NeverEnding Story but with more dry, wracking coughs

  6. Thanks Girl Clumsy....

    Anger is an energy. However anger is not ecologically sustainable.

    I used to work in environmental management for fossil fuels processing industries.

    Like tobacco, 'fossil fuels' generate a lot of revenue for Governments (through exises, taxes & levies etc) and employ a lot of people.

    Their customers have formed addictions & dependencies.

    And I hope, the Sol Levy equivalents give up the fight for the right to sell and burn fossil fuels, that all the Sol Levy-type people who formed in my imagination can let go of their anger.