Tea for Two

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Coffee shops may be ubiquitous, but Red Lodge Books and The Voracious Reader have found their niche in serving tea. From sharing its origins to spreading enjoyment of its calming qualities, the booksellers are finding tea a welcome addition to their stores.

Since Gary and Kathy Robson opened Red Lodge Books, in Red Lodge, Montana, 10 years ago, customers were always asking if the couple planned to add a coffee shop. With a recent move to a larger space (the store is now about 2,000 square feet), the Robsons decided a serving counter would work. But with a “great coffee shop a block away,” Gary Robson, who was never a coffee drinker himself, said they decided to serve tea.

About a year ago, Red Lodge began selling loose teas in tins. Since expanding and adding the serving counter, the bookstore now offers 80 different types. The large selection can be intimidating, so Red Lodge displays “Staff Favorites,” a list of eight teas staff members enjoy most.

Red Lodge's Tea Room displays its extensive selection of teas from around the world.

To provide a perfect cup of tea, the Robsons use tea timers and adjust the quantity of leaves and the steeping time based on the tea type. “That way, each customer gets a cup of tea that’s prepared just right, which makes them more likely to want bulk tea to take home for later,” said Robson.

Hot tea is served in clear glass mugs, and iced tea in clear “to go” cups, so patrons can see the tea’s color and clarity. The tea bar is designed to make the tea look appealing to bulk buyers. Tea leaves are displayed in jars along the back wall, but to ensure freshness the majority of the stock is kept in a backroom, in opaque airtight containers.

Most of the store’s bestsellers are predictable favorites, like Earl Grey and Moroccan Mint, but Robson said that he was happy to find the town harbored other tea aficionados like himself, who were happy to discover a source for lesser-known teas, like Lapsang Souchong, Aged Pu-erh, and Roasted Maté.

Though the tea comes from all over the world (places of origin are marked on a large world map), Red Lodge has made an effort to add local elements by offering tea accessories. The bookstore sells alfalfa and clover honey from a nearby ranch, and handmade pottery tea ware from a local artisan. The Robsons are also working on developing some tea blends based on Montana-grown herbs.

To keep the tea theme going, Kathy Robson tracked down several suppliers of shortbread, a better complement to tea than the biscotti served at coffee shops. Some of the shortbreads even have tea baked into them.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony at A Proper Cup in Larchmont, New York.

Since opening The Voracious Reader, a children’s bookstore in Larchmont, New York, four years ago, Francine Lucidon, has always wanted to open a teashop next door. When the space became available, she jumped at the chance to bring her plans to fruition. She imagined a proper teashop for children and their parents, which, admittedly, was largely inspired by various children’s books.

“It seemed all very Nanny McPhee, Lemony Snicket, Alice in Wonderland,” Lucidon said.

After a year of renovating and learning about the food industry, she opened A Proper Cup, which serves a wide selection of tea, cold-brewed coffee, and various baked goods.

“It fits with the whole vision of the bookstore,” she said, “which is about slowing down, relaxing, and spending time with the kids.”

The shop, which does not yet have a to-go option, encourages customers to “sit down and sip their tea, slowly,” said Lucidon.

“Tea is so much fun. It’s all about learning. It ties in with so many interesting things – it’s a geography lesson, a science lesson, and a lesson in heritage. It’s fascinating, and drinking it has more of a slower, more ambient feel.”

Hannah and Delphine ready to take  orders at A Proper Cup.

A Proper Cup has opened many new doors for Lucidon, who plans to hold more events, now that she has the space. She will definitely be booking more birthday parties, she said, and is planning to install a big screen television, where the store will host author visits via Skype and customers will be able to view book trailers and video book reviews.

The teashop give the store a “more community feel,” said Lucidon, who, since opening the shop, has seen many new customers, including a woman bringing her daughter for her first cup of tea, “which was very sweet,” she said, and an older English couple, who were “delighted to be able to get tea in the afternoon.

“Sales have skyrocketed,” Lucidon said. “People come in and browse for longer, go over to the shop for some tea, and then they’re in such a good mood that they’ll come back to the bookstore and shop some more.”