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BY JOHN BOBEY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL TUREK | November 3, 2011 | Lifestyle
Proud papa: Nat Sherman, the man who started it all with a customer
Nat Sherman signing a deal with Epoca cigars. Will they celebrate with a smoke?
The company’s namesake, minding the store
|Michele Sherman with her father, Joel|
When thinking of old New York, one image that surely comes to mind is the flannel-suited, fedora-wearing man about town with a cigar clenched between his teeth. He could be a newspaperman, a macher in the garment business, a Wall Street power broker, or Nat Sherman himself. “That picture was my grandfather,” says executive vice president Bill Sherman. “The hat, the cigar, the cashmere overcoat—that is who he was.”
The story of Nat Sherman—the man and the cigar empire he built—is as New York a story as you’ll ever hear. And after 80 years of providing premium smokes to the New Yorkers who love them, it’s a story whose most exciting chapters are being written right now.
A History In Smoke
In the early 1930s, Nat Sherman was a partner in a small cigar factory. When a friend of his was constructing a building at 1400 Broadway, the guy’s money ran out four stories short of completion. Nat loaned his friend the funds to finish the job, and as a way of repaying the favor, the friend asked, “How about I give you the store on the first floor?” recalls executive vice president Larry Sherman. “My grandfather said, ‘Why don’t we start selling cigars?’ And so our story begins. Nat Sherman’s cigar store quickly became a hangout for Manhattan executives and showbiz types. Through the next 60 years (and a change of location to 711 Fifth Avenue), Nat Sherman flourished, introducing a line of cigarettes, the Havana Ovals, a cigar-tasting cigarette developed especially for a customer looking for an acceptable smoke while jetting through the cigar-unfriendly skies, and set the standard for super-premium cigars made from the world’s finest tobaccos.
By the late 1980s, Reagan-era prosperity helped fuel the cigar boom, but Nat Sherman’s health, and that of his company, was beginning to fail. Fortunately, there were Shermans in the wings ready to breath new life into the company. Nat’s son Joel took over the company as president and CEO, and Nat’s grandchildren Bill, Michele, and Larry got into the business as well. With the company stronger than ever, they moved to 500 Fifth Avenue in 1991 and incorporated a smoker’s lounge into the 7,000-square-foot retail space. Expanding on that idea, in 2007 Nat Sherman moved into “The Townhouse” at 12 East 42nd Street, their flagship store and a cathedral to the enjoyment of a good smoke in a clubby, luxury environment. The landmark epitomizes what Nat Sherman has come to represent in the new millennium—an indulgence to be savored.
To put it mildly, attitudes toward smoking have changed over the years, especially in New York. But rather than be hindered by those changes, the latest generation of Shermans has evolved their business to offer customers an oasis of acceptance and camaraderie. As Joel Sherman puts it, “Smoking was a habit; now it’s pleasure.” His son Bill quickly adds, “Cigars are a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what you do—if you’re smoking a cigar together, there’s a commonality in that.”
A Cigar Lover's Dream
Michael Herklots is Nat Sherman’s executive director of retail and brand development and has clearly been embraced as an honorary Sherman. As he walks through the Townhouse, his respect for the company’s history and enthusiasm for creating an intimate, familial experience for the customer are palpable. “We are not having you walk into our lobby shop or search through our website,” says Herklots. “We are inviting you to have an experience in our home. We want you to sit, relax, and be comfortable, and make sure we offer all the things to make you comfortable.”
When Sigmund Freud allegedly said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” he obviously wasn’t standing in the Nat Sherman Townhouse, the home of an astonishing collection of super-premium cigars. Much like wine, coffee, or tea, tobacco displays all the elements of terroir, exhibiting the unique qualities rooted in where and how it was grown. Nat Sherman cigars are crafted with an artisanal approach and are intended to be enjoyed as the handcrafted works of art they are.
It’s an approach that’s working. The Nat Sherman Townhouse is a destination for cigar aficionados known all over the world, and even on their first visit, customers are treated like regulars. This adherence to the highest quality products and service, coupled with an old-school work ethic, has Nat Sherman poised for a bright future. With this month’s debut of the Timeless Collection, a proprietary blend that honors the brand’s history while catering to the preferences of today’s smoker, they’re continuing their legacy of defining and addressing what New York cigar smokers want. “I say there is only one expert,” offers Joel Sherman, “and that is the fellow who is smoking the cigar.”
“It is something we are proud about, something that we respect tremendously, and something that is part of our social fabric,” says Bill Sherman of the company’s New York history. “That was my grandfather. That is who we are, and we try to maintain those same values. That is what makes us special and uniquely New York. The number of times people come walking by the front of the store, just wanting to take a picture of the plaque or the storefront—it is iconic New York. They respect it as being part of what makes the city special, and that is something we don’t take lightly.” Echoes Joel, “It might have gotten a little more dressed up over the years, but this is the quintessential New York joint.”
|The Townhouse, Nat Sherman’s flagship store|
It’s a swell joint at that. Polished woodwork lines the walls, with tobacciana gleaming inside dramatically lit cabinets. The walls are dotted with framed letters of praise from John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and American presidents. Upstairs are private offices and a reception area complete with a baby grand piano. The downstairs level houses the humidor and private lockers of notable New York smokers, as well as the Johnson Club Room, named for the company’s matriarch, Lautia “Johnson” Sherman. Leather and oak abound, with Deco flourishes and vintage photography that make it a must-see for those who appreciate the finer things.
All In the Family
The Shermans don’t take the family part of their business for granted. Joel wouldn’t let any of his offspring into the fold until they had worked somewhere else first. Bill says his father, Joel, explained the philosophy as this: “If I have to teach you everything that I know, then you’ll never teach me anything.” Joel says what his father, Nat, was really trying to get across was “a feeling self-worth. You develop a sense of being able to earn your own living.” After more than 80 years in business, Nat Sherman and the family behind it qualify as a true New York institution. The city wouldn’t be the same without them, and with another generation of Shermans on deck, it looks like their legacy is secure. “I hope we build something in this family that they want to continue,” says Bill of his children, nieces, and nephews. “What we have is really exciting—the camaraderie, tradition, and history. All the things that are important as family they see in our generation, and it excites them as they grow up.”
A family business where everyone who does business is treated like family—that’s what Nat Sherman was all about, and he’d be proud to see that things haven’t changed. “We don’t just have three generations of Shermans who have worked with this company and gotten it to where it is,” asserts Herklots. “We also have three generations of customers who continue to bring the next generation in and introduce them to the sales guy they have known for 18 years. Their father introduced them, and now they are doing so with their son. There is a magical thing that happens here.” 12 E. 42nd St., 212-764-5000