High Tea

No one was surprised when “High Tea,” went out of business but I’m sure everyone in town was a bit saddened—no one could remember when it wasn’t right there between the hardware store and the shoe repair shop. I remember walking past it every day on my way to and from school, my mom said she remembers doing the same. I’ve asked everyone I’ve met in the last few days about it—my best guess is that shop has been there at least 50 years.

Mrs. Blavatski (most people called her Ms. B) baked the most wonderful scones, sweet biscuits, crumpets and muffins. I used to stop there on my way home from school and she’d give me and my friends the muffins etc. from the day before that hadn’t sold. As a kid I normally didn’t like old-fashioned things but I loved the tea shop—the old worn-varnish floor boards whose squeaking I enjoyed as I walked across them. There were always the crisp white lace curtains and the old glass display cases full of fresh baked pastries and breads. I guess it was my first little personal ritual—going there after school each day. It felt safe, warm and eternal—like for a little while—time didn’t matter.

There was an article in the local paper a few days ago about the shop closing. Ms. B’s daughter—Susan Downing—took over the shop after her mother had a stroke in 2004 and died a few months after. I had gone to school with Susan and knew her fairly well. She said the shop hadn’t made a profit since she was in high school—almost 20 years. Her mother had enough from savings, a few investments and Mr. Blavatski’s life insurance (he died in 1983) to live on. The shop, once a quite profitable enterprise, became a hobby business and a way for Ms B to occupy her days especially after Susan went off to college.

Probably the hey-day of the shop was right after World War II. During the war it was very hard to get tea—so much of it came from places controlled by the Japanese and of course freighters crossing the Atlantic bound for North America were subject to be torpedoed by German U-boats. After the war tea was again available and most people in this country felt the world had changed.  Suddenly the United States was a world power—we were the same and yet somehow we were a different people.

 Back in the late 40s ladies groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution, the John Street Ladies Literary Society and the John Street Crocheting and Quilting society met there in the late afternoons. My mom went to the crocheting and quilting group for years. I remember her talking on the phone when I was a kid to one of her friends about two “uppity-muckity” ladies groups that met in the evenings after regular shop hours. Both were quite exclusive—membership by invitation only—and you had to be voted in.

One was made up of Ladies whose husbands were high profile professionals in the community—doctors, attorneys, high-ranking politicians, wealthy businessmen, the other was strictly old money, high-society types—the “Knob Hill” crowd mom said.

In 1953 it emerged that a woman by the name of Mrs. Julia Steinmetz—a member of the Knob Hill group for 7 or 8 years—had the maiden name ”Greenglass.” She had been keeping it a secret for quite some time. Greenglass was the maiden name of Ethel Rosenberg—who was executed in 1953 with her husband Julius—for delivering top secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviets. The FBI had come knocking on the Steinmetz’s door one day and it came out.  They didn’t get into any trouble but they were pretty much doomed socially in this town, in that day.

Mrs. Steinmetz was asked to leave the group and was similarly ousted from every other group and organization she belonged to. She was shunned in church and on the street and 4 or 5 months after the initial revelation she was found dead in a guest cottage on their property, having committed suicide by poison. Her husband Arthur, sold his business and left town. It was rumored he became an alcoholic and eventually died in an alcohol-related accident 3 or 4 years later. Sometime in the early 60s, a young woman by the name of Cardiff, who was in a political science program at Rutgers, was writing a doctoral thesis on the Rosenbergs. She came to town to interview people about the Greenglasses as part of her research.  Apparently Julia Steinmetz—aka Julia Greenglass—was in fact related to Ethel Greenglass—aka Ethel Rosenberg—but was a quite distant relation—so distant they had never met or communicated.

The Knob Hill group fell apart not long after that as did the ladies-with-professional-husbands group. The other tea groups lasted several years more but by the early ‘60s tea and socializing for ladies had pretty much faded—so many women were working full-time jobs by then—the world had changed again.

 High Tea continued to do pretty good on into the 60s—re-inventing itself as a bakery. Many of the former group members had standing orders for Mrs. B’s wonderful scones, muffins and breads. She had to expand the bakery operation, building an addition on to house the new ovens and hiring 2 employees.

When Mr. Blavatski died in 1983 the business was closed for several months and Mrs. B. lost all of her standing business. She sold off the commercial bakery operation and when she re-opened, the shop went back to a small, one oven, one-batch-at-a-time business.

It was during those years, after Mrs. B went back to the small operation, I walked by the shop on my way to and from school. When Mrs. B died in 2004 I was living in another state, rarely getting home to visit my folks.  I got an email from Dad one evening mentioning Mrs. B’s death—and I found myself tearing up. While I doubt I ever exchanged more than 10 words with Mrs. B. on any given occasion the whole time I was growing up, I guess she and her shop was one of those little, personal institutions from childhood we take for granted and sort of assume will always be there.

A few years ago, in 2007 , I did come back to spend a few days with Dad—mom had died 11 years earlier. I brought along my oldest son who at that time was seven. We went by the High Tea and talked with Susan and her husband. They had added a coffee shop business like Starbuck’s and had little ”Dunkin-Donuts,” franchise, otherwise the place seemed wonderfully unchanged. At that time they seemed to be doing well but in the years since apparently the economy and some personal issues caused the shop’s demise.

My son found his favorite, colored-sprinkle donut and quickly discovered the squeaky floor boards. It was a delightful if melancholy experience watching him eating his donut–as I used to eat my muffin–and walking back and forth making the boards squeak, exactly as I did decades before.

It felt warm, safe and eternal—like for a little while—time didn’t matter.







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