How To Start a Tea Room, in Seven Parts (Part 1)

Finding it

    In the beginning, “podunk” was a funny word chosen as the name of a simple place, a new kind of home. For years, while I worked in publishing, we three would pass little cafes, humble bars, small shops, and even if the place was almost empty, we found them cozy. If we saw a person in there, we supposed him or her to be the owner, and we had this thought—how wonderful to have a place of your own to go, every day, that you'd designed and thought about, and even if no one came in, you'd pour yourself a little warm drink and read the paper and that was about as lovely as it could get.

    “Come in—or don't. More for us,” my daughter joked in Soho on a Saturday in 2001 as we passed a tiny china shop where a cat was asleep in the window. Frankly, the couple who were inside tending the place didn't look as if they needed anything else in the world to be happy. In contrast, we were in a place that wasn't very happy at all. I had worked as a freelancer and full-time in various media, ever since my daughter was seven months old, while my husband had raised her almost alone while pursuing his work as a researcher in mostly academic venues. We had paid off the apartment in New York City, and we had the house in Connecticut for weekends, and a car, and a cat, and it was all supposed to be what we wanted, but it wasn't. We all felt it, but we weren't sure what to do about it.

There was a “For Rent” sign in the Connecticut town where we spent our weekends, on a tiny row of storefronts just up the hill from a popular, perfect lake. It was surrounded by trees and old Victorians, and across from the public beach was that most private of schools, Hotchkiss, where ruddy faced girls and pink-cheeked boys played field hockey against golden autumn landscapes. The three of us could not drive past that “For Rent” sign without staring at it, and it came with a little cottage across the street, all for $550 a month. Nothing about that rent could we get over. We would talk about great shops that could fit there, with the town, and how we'd bring in supplies from New York, and what we'd do in the winter, when the town was quiet. We noted, triumphantly, as if we had been born to this notion, that as we drove up there every weekend, we could keep our city life and our city jobs, while also running a business on weekends, when the town was full of tourists and daytrippers. We'd been daytrippers, so we knew what the town needed, we told ourselves.

    This daydream so preoccupied us, but it was more like a board game we were obsessed with, or a piece of music we loved so much that we turned the car radio all the way up whenever it was on. Our lives were set in stone, and no one really thought we'd rent a shop and set up a business. But that storefront was an adorable dollhouse that we kept redecorating, in our minds, tirelessly. It always made us forget, if only temporarily, just how restless we were.

    It was fall, 2001, and we were all reeling, as Americans and as New Yorkers, from the events of September 11. The city felt subdued, but everyone I knew was restless. There was a sense, everywhere, of the need for action, a feeling of immediacy. A new job for me meant we had less time for weekends away, and we'd also grown weary of living in two places. There were always two tubes of toothpaste in one home and none in the other, and the advice of others who lived in our area, to “have the help come in and ready the place before you get there, to stock up and lay a fire,” was certainly beyond our income or thinking.

    My daughter was becoming increasingly social on weekends. We were also starting to give into the feeling that we needed some sort of financial consolidation—maybe there were times when you did put all your eggs in one basket after all. 

    We packed up the Connecticut house, and were starting to adjust to cold city walks on the weekends, vowing to walk the entire length and width of Manhattan after so many months away. We had newcomers' eyes and locals' sense of direction and neighborhood—the perfect combination for exploring the city. We were fearless and energetic, and the number of new shops and apartment buildings on every block—as well as the number of reliable old establishments still thrumming along—matched our sense of wanting something new, even if we called upon familiar resources.

    You cannot walk that much in Manhattan and not notice every “For Rent” sign in the borough. “Store for Rent,” “Retail Space for Rent,” and “1600 square feet plus basement” didn't really lure us over the windows, but we did a lot of peeking in and squinting and peering through side doors and yes, testing doors to see if a trusting realtor had left any unlocked for potential tenants. We were not looking for a space, but we were, and we crossed streets to scout locations, waved each other down desolate blocks to “see this, come here!” and never got tired of imagining ourselves in most of them. 

    I had a map of the city with me, and we drew lines through all the territory we covered until there were more marks than map. One day, though, amid the mess of scribbles and loops and X's over entire areas, we spied a piece of East Fifth Street that we'd never, in all our trips to the East Village, come across. It was not a thoroughfare, but interrupted once at Avenue A to First Avenue, again on Avenue C, and cut off entirely at Third Avenue (or, as it's variously called, Bowery and Cooper Square). The little stretch between First and Third, just two blocks long, we'd completely ignored. 

    Now it was May, 2002 and almost Memorial Day, and extremely hot. Second Avenue was as steamy as summer, and St. Mark's Place was already in carnival mood for the season. We trudged past the crowds of punks and rockers, teenagers and bikers, city strollers and barking dogs, and vendors selling sunglasses, south to Fifth Street. We turned right, and stopped.

    In late spring, the trees had formed a shady canopy over the entire street. We took tentative steps forward, and the temperature dropped a few degrees. There was a rustle of leaves overhead, and the trucks and traffic of Second Avenue faded from our hearing. Townhouses on the left, tenements on the right, punctuated by a couple of large, restored old apartment buildings—these gave the impression of an old neighborhood, not too pretty, not too tired, just a block where people actually lived and worked. And there, in the middle of the block, two doors down from a flower shop and beautiful brick-lined wine store, was a bay window out of a Hollywood set. 

    I should add, now, that it was a bay window out of a Hollywood set of the “before” part of the story. Someone had painted the carved gingerbread around the plate glass a robin's egg blue, with a lime green peeking out where the paint had chipped. Inside the heavy wooden door we could see workers in the middle of demolition. In the very back was an enormous window, and just beyond it was what appeared to be a garden. Taped to the glass was small scrap of paper, bearing the handwriting of someone who was possibly old or in a big hurry. “For Rent,” followed by a phone number. 

    We walked to the corner, fumbling for quarters for the phone call. We hardly talked to each other. We had silently agreed, the three of us, that we wanted to know the rent on this little place. We weren't entirely sure what I was going to say to anyone at the other end of the line. But an inquiry couldn't hurt.

    An answering machine put all questions to rest. It was an oracle, a palm-reading, an enigmatic piece of wisdom, straight from the realtor's desk. 

     “You have reached Chuck Schwartz's real estate office. If it's Monday all day or Tuesday morning, please don't leave a message. If it's Tuesday after one p.m., leave a message and we will call you back. You may also leave a message on Wednesday, from ten a.m. to 2 p.m., but not before or after those hours. We will be in the office Thursday after noon, and Friday, but please don't leave a message—simply hang up and call back. We return all weekend phone calls on Tuesday. Thank you.”

     The robust voice that had recorded the message was so distinguished and matter-of-fact that I believe I did leave a message, noting that it was Memorial Day and technically a weekend call, and that we'd love to hear from him Tuesday. We were so nervous, and we had not been, for any other calls to realtors. 

    In fact, I’d wondered if as for house-hunting, finding a spot for business was going to be settling for the best of the lot. We’d seen wonderful locations, the right size, price, and aesthetic (white walls, wooden floors), on busy avenues, and I couldn’t imagine Samia in them. We’d seen small homier spots that came with low ceilings, odd-shaped rooms, but the location felt less like a business district and more like a neighborhood. 

     This one felt right in all ways. So when Chuck called back, as we knew he would, it was the beginning of a move-in that took place in July. Those details are lost to time; none of us can trace the precise order of events anymore. It was a business-like transaction, but that's about all I recall. And our 92-year-old landlord, Mr. Morton Tabak, sent us riders to the lease written in his own hand.

    We'd seen the place, and it was Podunk.