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Deep in Virginia’s Civil War country is a tobacconist who can wax poetic about General James Longstreet’s love of cigars. He can tell you all about AJ Fernandez and Pepin Garcia. He can tell you more than I can about what 100 different cigars taste like, and about how evenly they burn.
Oh — and he’s 23 years old. I’m not making this up.
On Saturday I visited with Andrew Saylor, the young entrepreneur behind Saylor’s Cigars and Gifts in Manassas, Virginia. He started the shop three years ago at age 20, still not legally able to have a celebratory beer.
Saylor’s father loaned Andrew enough money from his plumbing business in 2009 to start out. It’s profitable now, and the elder Saylor has his investment back, an amount Andrew hinted was in the high-five-figure range.
“I’d be nowhere without my dad,” he told me with great emphasis. “I owe so much to him.”
Today Saylor’s is a thriving strip-mall cigar oasis, sandwiched between a barber shop and a tax-preparation service. It sports leather sofas, a flat-screen TV — playing the Olympics when I visited Saturday evening — and an exhaustive selection of hand-rolled cigars.
The wall opposite the TV is blank. Saylor said he’s reserving it for future photos of his customers.
“Before I opened this, I would — and I don’t know if this is a bad thing to say — but I would go to other cigar shops and think ‘How can I make mine better?’” he told me.
“And the biggest thing I found is customer service. So when I opened this, I knew customer service is key. I’m going to treat you with total respect. Anything you want, I will get. If there’s a cigar you don’t see in here, I’ll do my best to get it. It’s customer service. Treat everybody with respect.”
His young fiancee jumped in, the only one in the shop who wasn’t smoking. ”It’s a family atmosphere, because this is a family-run shop.”
“So I treat everyone in here like family,” Saylor added. “Even if they’re giving me a hard time. They’re family.”
How does this wunderkind manage an enterprise like this, I wondered?
“I only have a high school diploma,” he explained. “I never went to college or anything. My dad owns a plumbing business, and I help him run that, so I got some financial experience.”
“But cigar-related? I started smoking at 18, and then around 19 I started trying different things to get different tastes. And I studied it. And once I knew a lot, I wanted to give that knowledge to other people. So why not open a cigar shop?”
He smokes four or five cigars a day, he said — “A minimum of four,” his fiancee insisted — and keeps his place open long after the rest of the strip mall goes to sleep. The sign on his door announces a 10:00 p.m, closing time, but he said that 10 o’clock is just a guideline for days that can end long after midnight.
“I’m not gonna kick you out at 10 if you’re here and you’re having a good time,” he told me. “I’m not gonna kick anybody out.”