Sydney’s Tobacconist Extraordinaire
Text: Samuel Spurr / Photos: Samuel Spurr
Emigrating from what is modern day Poland to Australia in the late 1800s, Sol Levy established his tobacconist in a burgeoning economy on the other side of the world. Spending time with Levy’s great grand-niece, Samuel Spurr re-tells some of this family business’ 120 year history.
Born in 1860, Sol Levy, a cigar maker by trade, made his way to Sydney in the 1880s and set to task immediately. He was the inaugural Treasurer, and later President, of the New South Wales Hebrew Benevolent Society, working tirelessly in the Jewish community. He and his wife Elizabeth, not having any children, adopted their infant nephew Ted Levi to assist Elizabeth’s sis-ter after her husband died. Ted kept his father’s Levi surname and learnt the cigar trade from his adoptive father, running the shop with Elizabeth after Sol died in 1925. In 1962, on an inconspicuous bus trip to work, Ted died of a heart attack, thus passing the reins to his son Sol. Sol Levi, the current patriarch of the family, sits quietly in semi-retirement with his daughter Evelyn Platus managing the shop.
Evelyn took over the day to day running of Australia’s oldest, family-run tobacconist in 1998. Like many in the tobacco industry, her apprenticeship was completed as a teenager on weekends and during summer holidays. “We used to come in on Saturday afternoons and polish the linoleum floor”, she recalls fondly. “I remember cutting filters, re-packaging bulk orders of pipe cleaners, and sleeping in the old saloon chairs while dad was repairing pipes late into the night.”
From Australian Cigars to Pipe Tobacco
Sol Levy reached the pinnacle of the colony’s cigar industry in 1892 when he was awarded first prize for cigar making by the Agricultural Society of New South Wales. “In those days it was very common in Australia to roll cigars”, informs Evelyn. “Sol rolled cigars in the shop’s basement in summer and in the attic in winter due to the temperature extremes.” Cigar making was indeed a family pursuit, with Ted’s brother making cigars under his own brand name “Lyle’s Cigars” up until 1938.
The business slowly shifted from its cigar focus and today Sol Levy offers Australia’s largest range of pipes and pipe tobacco complemented by a core range of cigars. “Peterson pipes are very popular with customers. Dad has done business with them since the 1960s”, Evelyn notes. Enjoying both cigars and pipes, Evelyn favours Fonsecas and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and is currently enjoying Peterson’s Sherlock Holmes blend. “Often I’ll show a customer something and think to myself, ‘hmm that looks good’ and I’ll give it a go.”
When asked what the founder of the business would think of the current state of the shop, Evelyn believes he’d be pretty proud of what the family has achieved. “Sol Levy was a small businessman and he hit on something that worked at the time – of course there was a lot of luck involved.” Evelyn is keen on keeping the business in the family saying, “my father is blessed with plenty of grand-children, but at this stage none of them are interested. There are possibilities of course”.
“Sol Levy”, is indeed the story of a “tobacconist extraordi-naire” that has faithfully served thousands of cigar and pipe lovers. With a bit more luck it will continue to do so for a few more years yet. “If we can turn the tide against the current social thinking on smoking then we could still survive”, Evelyn says. “There are many more government employees paid to fight the tobacco industry than there are individuals who are prepared to stand-up and champion their cause. We really need a massive social shift.”