By John Carlisle
Detroit Free Press.
Out of nowhere, right in the middle of all the barbershops and beauty salons and the storefront churches that line the road, a quaint little tea shop opened one day.
It sure seemed out of place. This is McNichols on Detroit’s west side, a faded retail strip with little more than the kind of businesses that remain after all the other ones have left the neighborhood — hair and nail salons, shabby auto repair shops, coney islands, liquor stores.
The sudden appearance of a place devoted to the delicate manners of an old-fashioned tradition left the neighbors scratching their heads.
” ‘Why are you here?’ Someone asked me that,” said Darlene Alston, the owner of Just A Bit Eclectic tea shop. ” ‘Why did you choose this place? Why aren’t you downtown? This is not the right neighborhood for this kind of place.’ ”
She was standing behind the counter inside her shop, brewing hibiscus tea for a customer typing on her laptop. A spring weeknight breeze blew through the screen of the iron-barred door. Billie Holiday sang from a little stereo.
“But I think the neighborhood deserves this,” Alston said, surrounded by dainty tea cups and teapots on wall shelves, inside cabinets and set out on tables. “This is what a neighborhood should be. It should have places like this.”
In a city that’s struggling to boost its neighborhoods while celebrating its efforts closer to its downtown core, she’s been told her shop would do better in a higher-traffic, culturally rich area like Corktown or Midtown. Or that if she insisted on opening in this neighborhood, she should wait until the progress downtown begins to show here, too.
In a city whose residents feel the neighborhoods have largely missed out on Detroit’s renaissance, few people are opening places like this in a neighborhood like this.
But Alston is gambling that the presence of this little tea shop here might by itself set a different tone, shift the dynamic and suggest to others that life can be made better in the neighborhoods right now, that there’s no need to wait for the city to come help them.
“Maybe people aren’t used to that anymore because they’re sectioning off Detroit, like downtown is a bustling business area, or some other part is,” she said. She handed the steaming teacup to her customer.
“But this can be a bustling business area as well,” she said. “Because they do it in Ferndale, they do it in Royal Oak, they do it in Birmingham. Why not here?”
And in trying to do that here, in this west-side neighborhood, her shop wound up becoming more to the community than just a place to drink some tea.
“There’s some building that has to be done here, but somebody has to do it,” she said. “If one guy says, ‘I’m gonna wait,’ another says, ‘Well, I’m going to wait, too,’ and this guy at the barbershop, he’s gonna wait too. So everybody’s waiting and nobody starts. That’s just crazy.”
She looked out the door at the cars going by outside. “They may not be ready for this, but it’s here.”
A childhood dream
She assumed that tea would be a hard sell.
“Detroiters are a working-class people,” she said. “We get up in the morning, we go get our coffee, we go to work and we drink our coffee so we can stay awake. But tea? I don’t know.”
Alston spent a career working various federal government jobs, and when she retired she found an abandoned dentist’s office for sale on McNichols, just west of the Southfield Freeway, where she could own the kind of tea shop she’d dreamed of having since she was a child.
She’d been saving money for years to do this.
Her shop offers a dozen teas including gunpowder, Darjeeling and Japanese cherry blossom, plus herbs like spearmint, sage, chamomile and lavender to mix with the teas or brew alone. She also serves food like Hoppin’ John soup with smoked turkey, black-eyed peas and collard greens, or chicken and turkey sandwiches on wheat or ciabatta bread, or whatever’s in stock that day.
Yet she had customers wandering in almost from the start, curious to see what was inside this odd place, whose creative exterior stood out amid the comparatively plain buildings of the strip.
“Something like this is in my neighborhood and I haven’t been in there?” said neighbor Dana Dacres when she first found it. “I was surprised. But at the same time very happy because I really don’t want to go all the way out to Birmingham or somewhere like that to find something nice like this.”
She reached in a box and unpacked the cake pops she’d baked at her home baking business for the group of women gathered at the tea shop, where Dacres, 37, now teaches a Friday night knitting class.
Gloria Patterson sat next to her, trying to knit her first scarf. The 61-year-old stopped in one day while on a walk around her neighborhood, kept coming back, got drawn in by Alston’s enthusiasm and wound up partnering with her to create a new business association for the street.
In fact, the tea shop draws a broad spectrum of customers, some of them improbable, like the young men who roam the streets around here, the ones people say are in gangs.
Alston is thoroughly unthreatened by them, and would go outside when she first opened her shop to impose a conversation on them.
“They like to look tough, like they’re upset about something. And I’d say, ‘You’ve got nothing to be upset about. Smile — you’re a child.’ ”
Even they come in for tea now, she said.
“Guys that are walking down the street, they’ll say, ‘Man I want my tea,’ and they’ll stop in for tea,” she said. Some of them call her Mama.
“They like that strawberry tea,” Mama said. “Some of them like that bergamot.”
And sometimes, people just come in to be here. Some visitors just like having a quiet place they can go in the neighborhood.
“A mother and daughter came here and sat back here for four hours,” Alston said, pointing to a little cove furnished with soft chairs and a couch, where colored glass bottles stacked by the window soften and color the light coming in.
“There’s always something going on but you can just sit down, just relax. I’m not going to force you to do anything. If you want to sit here and stare, you can.”
Tea shop as classroom
This was always about more than just tea.
As soon as she opened her doors, Alston turned it into a nonprofit called A Place to Begin, which trains kids from the neighborhood in the basics of getting and holding a job. During the summer, she turns her tea shop into a classroom.
“I think it’s just necessary and important to help children,” she said. “Somebody did it for me. I always had adults in my life to teach me and encourage me. Somebody does it for you, you do it for somebody else.”
A lot of the kids growing up around here, she found, didn’t understand the basic requirements for employment — how to talk to people, how to behave, how to perform daily tasks. Mostly because there aren’t any jobs for them around here where they can learn.
“They have no knowledge of how to deal with customers,” she said. “I would tell them, ‘When a customer comes in you’ve got to smile.
You’re always nice and you’re always courteous and you’re articulate.’ Children like to mumble and nobody knows what they’re saying.”
Back when she was growing up on Detroit’s east side, the schools offered co-op activities that taught kids life and job skills they’d
need one day for employment. She credits it with putting her life on a good track.
“They taught you how to cook, how to sew, told you that you can be a better person. And now we don’t have recreation centers and we don’t have co-op anymore. There’s nowhere for the children to go.”
She trains neighborhood kids as cashiers, cooks or managers. A handful of them have passed through her shop so far. She’s trying to get more for this summer.
“I think people criticize young people too much and then they don’t offer them anything as an alternative,” she said. “Somebody offered me an alternative and said, ‘Hey, come in here, I’m going to teach you something.’ That’s what they did. That’s what I know. And I want to help them become more than what they think they can become, just open up their world a little more.”
Community garden, too
As winter melted away, Alston wanted to create a community garden behind the shop, where raised beds could provide vegetables and herbs and broaden the shop’s purpose even more.
And on the spring day she set out to build it, a bunch of the neighbors showed up to help.
They gathered out back, many with their children, next to piles of salvaged wood pallets, and plastic buckets full of yard dirt, and seedlings sprouting in little containers, and got to work building a garden that won’t just supply the shop, but is also meant to teach the neighborhood kids what actual food is.
“They don’t know where food comes from and they don’t know what real food looks like,” she said. “They have no idea how a tomato tastes. They have no idea how a cucumber really smells.”
It’s been two years since she opened, and for the most part McNichols is still McNichols. There’s been no major transformation, no surge of development.
Yet there are little signs that something’s different. Some long-absent building owners have taken the boards down from their storefront windows, and are doing renovations, including in a building across the street. A new cake shop opened a few blocks away. And someone told Alston that just down the road, someone’s opening another tea shop.
They’re little but encouraging signs that people are beginning to agree this road can come alive again, like it was when she grew up.
“It’s been kind of left on its own, but that’s because nobody’s doing anything about it,” she said, as the garden was built up around her.
“Detroit is giving out money to do different things, but for this area, for whatever reason, nobody’s invested in it. So we have to invest in it ourselves.”
Just A Bit Eclectic tea shop
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 1-5 p.m. Saturday
19015 W. McNichols
The Knitty Gritty, One Needle Two Needle, Knitting and Crochet group meets 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday at the shop.