Bill Todd, one of the three co-owners of Todd and Holland Tea Merchants on Madison Street, is in the tea business in part because he has seen first hand how the preparing and drinking of tea can be a spiritual experience. He has been to Asia several times, hanging out with old men in tea houses in Beijing and buying tea directly from estates in Japan.
For some, tea is sacramental in the sense that it plays a central part in one of their religious ceremonies, Todd said. For Zen Buddhists, the Japanese Tea Ceremony is part of the process of realigning attitudes. If done correctly the ceremony is highly structured with even the size of the room being dictated by tradition. For most Japanese and Chinese, however, the tea ceremony is more of a cultural experience that nevertheless can be quite spiritual.
“One of the great things about tea is that it forces you to downshift,” Todd said. “We live in a day-late and a dollar-short world where we’re always in a hurry. We’re always playing catch up.”
He explained that to drink fine tea in the right way, we can’t just open the fridge, pour some into a travel mug and drink it while driving to pick up the kids from soccer practice. We have to boil the water, brew the tea, let it cool a bit, and if the tea is of good quality we’re going to linger over it, savoring the flavor and aroma. To do that means carving out 20 to 30 minutes in our schedule.
Todd contends that slowing down to enjoy some pleasure during the day is precisely what most busy Americans need.
“Most of us never downshift from the time we get up in the morning until our head hits the pillow,” Todd said. “What we’ve found with our customers is that they not only enjoy the taste of the tea but also the ceremony or process of making it.”
Marianne Richards, another co-owner, is in charge of tea accessories like tea pots and China. She added that the presentation of tea is a significant part of the whole experience.
“We had a paper-thin porcelain teacup made in Japan that was very expensive,” she said. “But it gave you such pleasure to feel it and drink from it.”
Richards said some of their customers are mothers who use tea as a way of helping their children make the transition from school to home.
“Some mothers have told us that teatime after school is an excellent time to sit down with their children and wind down with a cup of tea,” Richards said. “It becomes a daily ritual with conversation and tea flowing.”
Todd has heard from customers that because they have slowed down and enjoyed a break in their busy schedules with a good cup of tea, they like themselves better at the end of the day.
“People ask me what’s the difference between coffee drinkers and tea drinkers,” he said. “The main difference is that tea drinkers have learned that the journey is sometimes as enjoyable as the destination, whereas coffee drinkers are always going five miles an hour over the speed limit.”
It’s the difference between speeding up and slowing down. Todd said society encourages us to think we have to get ever increasing amounts of things done. That’s why the caffeine in power drinks and espresso is the drug of choice for so many.
He pointed out that tea has much less caffeine than does coffee. A cup of black tea has a third the caffeine that is in a cup of coffee, oolong a sixth and green tea a ninth.
“Many of our customers find that at the end of the day they are less wired and tense and more relaxed,” Todd said.
Janet Todd, the third co-owner, knows all about high stress. At one time in her life she worked in the pressurized atmosphere of the Mercantile Exchange as a commodities trader, as did her husband.
Richards, likewise, came from a stressful situation.
“My entrance to this tea business was the result of an armed robbery at my last place of employment,” she said. The jewelry store where she worked in the Loop carried Rolex watches.
When people argue that they are too busy to carve out half hour breaks in their busy schedules, Bill Todd responds that the time out that brewing and drinking a cup of tea provides allows people to get more centered, settle down and sort out their priorities.
The store always has a couple of teas brewed and ready for customers to drink. Janet Todd said that sometimes people will come in the store simply to “be with the tea.” Two women in particular drive all the way from St. Louis to shop at Todd and Holland, Janet Todd said. The first two times they came, they spent the whole day talking and asking questions about tea.
Convinced that the whole tea experience is more than replacing bodily fluids, she said people often drop in the store to just say hello. Tea’s culture is influencing their routines, Janet Todd said.
She estimated that at least 30 percent of their customers order from the catalogue, but instead of using the Internet to make their purchase, they prefer the phone simply because they want to visit awhile. Many begin to place their order without saying their names, assuming that she will recognize their voice. The tea merchants don’t hurry customers in the front of the store nor do they cut conversations short in the mail order department in the back, Janet Todd said. They even include a hand written note inside each package that they mail.
Want to learn more about tea? Following are three books recommended by Todd and Holland:
Soshitsu Sen, “CHADO, The Japanese Way of Tea.”
Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richard, “The New Tea Companion.”
James Norwood Pratt, “New Tea Lover’s Treasury.”