The latest in my irregular series on unusual jobs is tobacconist, which I thought I should get round to quickly before all the remaining tobacconists in Britain are closed down or forced to operate from rat-infested caves.
But although smokers are now, to the great benefit of the nation’s health, in a minority (about 22 per cent, down from the post-war level of practically everyone), tobacco is still big business.
Masood Malik, who runs the A.B.C. Specialist Tobacco shop in the Merrion Market, Leeds, with his wife Ishrat, points out that there are still gigantic warehouses in the traditional tobacco towns of Nottingham, Bristol and Glasgow devoted to distributing cigarettes to almost every corner shop, supermarket and filling station in the land.
Masood started the shop in 1992, thinking it would make a change from his previous newsagent’s and post office businesses – not having to open at the crack of dawn or work seven days a week being two of its attractions.
He was then a non-smoker (his wife still is) but doesn’t have any moral problem selling tobacco – any more, I suppose, than the directors and shareholders of Morrisons, Sainsbury’s or Tesco do.
Masood likes being a specialist shopkeeper. After buying the shop, he set out to learn the tobacco trade – he keeps books on cigars and tobacco on a shelf in the shop and took up smoking (cigars, in moderation) only after becoming a tobacconist.
He learned all about tobacco growing (the top leaves are the sweetest) and even started smoking a pipe in the shop as a kind of advertisement – this was before it became illegal to smoke tobacco in a tobacco shop.
His newsagent customers were all people living close to his shop; now, when he goes through the city, he enjoys greeting customers from all over the unrepentant community of Yorkshire smokers.
He has one customer who travels from Scarborough by bus to get his nicotine supplies, though only during British Summer Time because he doesn’t like travelling in the dark. What he does the rest of the year we don’t know, but he certainly doesn’t sound like one of the reckless desperados some people take smokers to be.
At which point I should say that I haven’t smoked for years and don’t approve of the filthy, cancerous habit, but I do find specialist tobacco shops, or any specialist shop in the supermarket age, interesting and admirable.
I like the tobacconists’ paraphernalia – handsome-looking pipes, including, at A.B.C., a full Sherlock Holmes detective pipe normally only available in theatrical props departments, smart lighters, pipe cleaners and several types of cigarette-rolling machine, which, Masood tells me, always sell very well in the week following the Budget.
There are also humidors – cabinets set at a particular temperature and moisture-level so as to keep costly cigars in perfect condition.
Masood is proud of his humidors, which cost a bomb and were precision-made in Switzerland, although he doesn’t sell a huge amount of best Havana cigars because if you were the sort of rich, jet-setting traveller who could afford them, you could get them cheaper than in the Merrion Market.
The shop stocks around 83 types of pre-packed pipe tobacco and 28 pipe tobaccos sold in jars which, when you open them, explode with wonderful flavours – rather like freshly-ground coffee beans or half-baked cakes but not, unfortunately for the tobacco industry, like smoked tobacco residues lingering in ash trays and on carpets and clothes.
There are also cigarette-rolling tobaccos, several types of snuff (indicating that, although I’ve not met a single person who takes snuff, there must be a market for it), Indonesian clove cigarettes and, alongside the usual cigs, brands like Capstan Full Strength, Senior Service and Park Drive, which I haven’t seen in years and which I previously supposed had been banned, on health and taste grounds, at some time in the 1960s.
All these comes from around the world, particularly Denmark, the world capital of pipe-smoking and snuff-taking, America and, who knows why? Kendal in Cumbria.
The names of the smaller, specialist pipe tobacco brands – Black Vanilla, Caribbean Coconut, Sweet Peach or Irish Oak for example – are an inspiration and the intricacies of craftsmen-made twists, plugs and rubs, as explained by Masood, made me revive my previous fantasy, which was to be interviewed by the lovely Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs.
I haven’t abandoned the Kirsty fantasy, not being the fickle type, but I’ve expanded it to include, as my Desert Island luxury, an enormous supply of tobacco products and requisites so I can quietly smoke myself into an early grave rather than being nagged to death by the health police.