The first job that changed my whole life
My first encounter with the woman who would become my mentor and BFF was when I was 14, at a little cafe called Franklin Tea. When I timidly selected rose-scented tea from the menu, an older woman with white hair and glasses behind the counter looked me squarely in the eyes. “I really don’t like that tea at all,” she said.
Taken aback, I reconsidered my order. But she encouraged me to try the rose anyway, because, as she smartly put it, just because she likes something doesn’t mean I will. Unlike the Southern women I’d been around my whole life, this tea shop owner didn’t call me “honey” or ask me if I had a boyfriend. Her name was Jan. I decided I liked her.
Franklin Tea is a small tea shop nestled on Main Street of historic Downtown Franklin in Tennessee, Franklin. It’s the kind of place that people traipse by on their way to grab their frappucinos at the Starbucks on the corner. If you did happen to wander into the shop, you would be greeted by classical music wafting from the radio and some hundred different teas organized in jars along the walls. Most likely whoever was working behind the counter had a book open, hot tea beside them, and was arguing with her fellow co-worker about whether Edith deserved happiness after tattling to the Turkish ambassador about Mary’s affair on Downton Abbey.
Only four people worked at Franklin Tea: Jan, the owner, who always supported Mary in these arguments about Downton Abbey, Marcia, Jan’s equally outspoken daughter-in-law who is the epitome of the “cool mom,” and Emily, the other non-related member of our small tea family who gave me years of free counseling while she studied to be a therapist. And then, once I graduated from high school, there was me.
In the little town I grew up in, Franklin Tea served as a hub for local gossip. Store front owners, postmen, regular customers, street vendors, and even a few celebrities journeyed into the shop to enjoy the tea, but mostly to talk with Jan. Most days a customer bustled into the store, would see me and ask, “Is Jan in today?” Jan was famous for walking out the door mid-sentence and returning two hours later with fresh doughnuts.
Raised by a Scottish father and Canadian mother, Jan grew up in Boston drinking strong black tea, which she still sips daily. (Assam Khongea, if we’re being specific). After marrying a guy who later needed to be in Nashville for the music industry, Jan moved from scenic Maine to the also scenic but much hotter state of Tennessee. A more liberal thinker than most Franklinites, Jan’s political debates with customers about Obama’s ideas on health care, the role of gun control in the US, and other issues often ended with her saying, “I’m just a Yankee” as soon as the customer left and the door closed.
Jan often passed out free cookies to little boys when their moms weren’t looking, and more than once gave away free teapot lids to distressed husbands who had broken their wives’ favorite teapot. She also let me take phone calls during work, sometimes mid-pour, when I was looking to find another job and get out of Nashville. And that itself was at her insistence. After I graduated from college, Jan looked at me and said, “You gotta get outta here,” and I knew she was right.
When I did finally find a job that took me out of Nashville, I realized that meant leaving the place that sheltered me as an awkward teenager to a slightly less awkward young woman. On my last day in the shop, Jan put up a sign on the window that said, “Today’s Lauren’s last day. Come in and say goodbye! She’s moving to New York City!”
Last week, after having been open for thirteen years, Franklin Tea closed. And yes, I cried a lot. I thought about how the kids I hopefully have one day will never see the place that in so many ways felt like “mine.” But more important than any store is the person who made that shop what it was. All the reasons why I loved being there—the bustle, laughing at customers, complaining about working retail, discussing stories on NPR and debating current events—all of that was because of Jan. In that shop did she show me how to make someone feel comfortable through small acts of kindness, but also how to be bold and speak out. And of course make a perfect pot of tea. On that final day in the shop, I wrote her a note that said, “I want to be more like you and I’m sure I will, but I’ll always love rose-scented tea.”
[Image via iStock]