Can a Tea Shop Help Revive a Detroit Neighborhood?
What a cup of English Breakfast can do for the Motor City
Darlene Alston has a message for the people of Detroit: Slow down, take it easy and have a cup of tea. For three years, she’s run Just a Bit Eclectic, a tea shop on the west side of the city that sells loose leaf darjeeling, bergamot and rooibos teas served in fine china, and in the process attempted to convert a city of hardened coffee drinkers into English Breakfast aficionados. “We are a working man’s town,” she says. “We worked in factories, trucking and hard businesses, we weren’t tea drinkers. You drink your coffee and start your day. Tea is a luxury.”
So far, Alston has garnered a steady fan base. She’s introduced people to the over two dozen varieties of tea she carries, imported from a tea company that’s been in business around 300 years, about the same time Detroit was officially founded as a city. In addition to steeping teas, she’s managed to foster a growing community spirit in the area by setting up a local business association and turning her shop into a non-profit where she mentors young adults, training them in business skills and most recently, partnering with a mobile painting company to draw more people this neighborhood on Detroit’s west side. She’s also given residents hope that the neighborhood could now experience the kind of development downtown Detroit was becoming nationally known for—the kind of development that also hasn’t spread out to make real progress in the city.
Opening a tea shop had been a dream of Alston’s since she was 18 years old. She started saving money and managed to put half of her paychecks aside, even as a single mother of three children. She decided she was going to give Detroit a tea shop whether it was ready to have one or not, a place where people could “sit, sip and socialize” and also slow down. A year into her retirement after working in federal transportation, she found the building that would become “Just a Bit Eclectic,” and got to work. She settled on a shuttered storefront—a former dentist’s office that had been closed for at least 5 years—in a neighborhood where beauty stores and Coney Island-style diners were the norm.. A dedicated DIY-er, she painted, plastered and even laid the hardwood floor herself, which ended up badly battering her knees. She hauled in her tea sets, boldly decorated lamps, paintings and old kitchenware, elegantly covering almost every inch of her shop with her collection, making the place truly a reflection of its name.
“I like old stuff,” she says. “People throw away a lot of their history. Well, that’s a good thing because I’m going to pick it up.”
When she opened the tea shop on McNichols Road, still known to locals as its previous incarnation of Six Mile, the street wasn’t exactly an alluring destination. Though it had it’s fair share of businesses, there was no real reason to stop and stay here, she said people told her, but when Alston opened, things changed. She brought her oolong and fruit blend teas, decorated the walls with the vintage wares she’d been collecting for decades and pretty soon, people started showing up.
Not everyone was initially receptive to her presence. People popped in to ask the native Detroiter with a penchant for Downton Abbey what exactly she was doing in their neighborhood. “How long are you going to be here?” they said. “My doctor said that I have 34 years to live,” she told them, “so I’ll be here at least that long.”
On a recent Friday evening as large trucks and cars whizzed by on the busy street, over a dozen people slowly shuffled in, erupting in hugs and conversation. It was the first time they were meeting at the shop since Alston was back from summer vacation. Alston ran around, serving them Earl Grey Bergamot and pound cake as they dove into various knitting projects, including making hats and scarves for seafarers—the fishermen and sailors that work on Michigan’s many bodies of water.
“Doesn’t that smell good? It smells like butterscotch,” said Marchella Patillo, a probation officer for whom knitting has been a lifelong hobby. “This is like when your mama made you some good tea.”
Patillo sat a few tables away from Gloria Patterson, who has lived in the neighborhood for close to 30 years and had never seen anything like Alston’s tea shop here before. She initially came for the tea - falling in love with a ginger variety—and then stayed for the knitting group Alston hosts (“Knitty Gritty, One Needle Two Needle, Knitting and Crochet,” with members from 12 to 89 years old), working her way up to being able to make dish towels.
They’re here because Dana Dacres, the founder of the knitting group stumbled on the shop when she was driving up and down the street one day. She thought the knitting night would be temporary, but two years and many friendships later, they’re all still here. Just a Bit Eclectic’s ability to bring people together, she says, has provided a small relief in counteracting the national narrative of America’s most infamous city.
“Just because I live where I live doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a nice cup of tea, fine tea that isn’t some off-brand bitter tasting stuff,” she says. “We’re a community that loves finer things, and it is just unfortunate that in order to have access to these things we have to go 20 to 30 minutes outside of our circle to get it. This shop brings those things here.”
Alston’s ongoing investment in Detroit through tea while indulging in her own tea-related passions is steadily coming along. “If you think you’re going to get rich selling tea, you’re not,” she says one cloudy summer morning before she opens up for the day. “It’s something that you gotta love to do, you gotta love it if people come, you gotta love it if they don’t.”