When the word “institution” is used to describe something that has had long-running influence in a community, the tendency is to picture a substantial building that is probably part of a city skyline with commanding views that reach to a far horizon. Everyone has an important title, maybe even some are elected.
But then you look at a place like The Little Tea Shop, which is undeniably an institution in the best sense of the word.
Its influence spans generations and eras whose customs and practices we would scarcely recognize today. But we certainly recognize the simplicity of its mission on which its importance is built.
It is a place where people go to eat lunch and talk things over. No votes are taken that will determine any policies. It wouldn’t be as important in terms of its contribution if it kept that kind of record – the kind kept in digital databases and before than in leather bound volumes stacked in a storage room or basement or both.
Make pencil marks on a piece of paper and your duty is done. No vote counts at the end of an election night. The returns are quicker – a plate of food in a few minutes.
The value of this 95-year old small business with several owners over a lot of years is more than the food. It is in the people who have come and gone over those 95 years and the important decisions and conclusions they have come to for an hour or two without their nose to the grindstone.
Yet if you tried to quantify that and somehow codify its status as a hub for politics, for the judiciary, for the cotton trade – it would not work. None of that is the real point or value of The Little Tea Shop, just a block from the city’s riverfront.
We think the value of this place and many other treasures like it in our city is in the time and place it affords us to see what is really important.
It’s in the letter the late Jimmy Lauck wrote his wife, Suhair, that she found after his recent death.
“You have so many friends… They’ll want to help you. Let them help you.”
Yes, you stand a very good chance of encountering several judges if you have lunch at The Little Tea Shop. In a different time, it was someone in the cotton business.
More than that, you might find a friend with an observation on life in our city that you probably missed in one of those meeting we all have specifically to come up with ideas and plan to carry out ideas and then measure how close we got to achieving those ideas.
In our daily interaction and trust and faith in the course of that life is what a book of faith has called “the peace of the city.”