"My husband and I are big tea drinkers," says Lynette Chen, proprietor of the Tea Leaf, a teashop in Reading Terminal Market, as she reaches to a hot water tap. "We're not really coffee drinkers, and we thought this would be a different idea." The water flows over loose green Jasmine tea nestled in the custom tea filter Chen has rigged, a piece of a coffee filter skewered by a coffee stirrer and then placed over the rim of a paper cup.
Chen and her husband opened the shop, selling over 30 varieties of tea, in the Reading Terminal Market in 1995. The clientele, she says, "is someone who's more adventurous, someone more experimental food-wise, who cooks, and I thought that would be good."
So since its inception, Chen has been behind the counter six days a week. "That's probably the hardest part, she says, "it's demanding. If something special comes up that I wanna be at, it's difficult. But that's any business."
But, still, the pride she gets from her work, and from her tea, is almost tangible. When asked why the shop sells loose tea instead of tea bags, she looks incredulous, as if the answer should be obvious. Loose tea "is like coffee beans to instant coffee."
It's that pride in the work, and the love of the good tea it produces, that engenders the loyalty that becomes obvious even with a single visit to the shop. Chen is easy with her customers. She knows their names, their families, what they had for dinner last night, more bartender than simply merchant to the market crowds who come by to sit at one of the three stools for a cup of tea.
The loyal customers, Chen says, really come because it's just relaxing to sit and have a cup of tea with friends. And sitting at the Tea Leaf, sipping on a cup of warm, soothing, jasmine tea and staring up at the containers of all the other loose teas, I'm beginning to believe she may be right.