Taking Tea in a Coffee World: Tina Howard’s Leaves Book and Tea Shop
Book stores were closing.
Barnes and Noble’s two closures in Fort Worth—in downtown and on University Drive—were just many in a larger trend. Borders had completely closed down several years back.
Tina Howard discerned a gap opening. As a writer and a booklover, she valued the community space that these stores provided.
“I've always loved writing,” Tina said, “and I've always been invested in the writing community in some way and mourning this loss of a space that to me was more than just a place that sells books. It was like this congregation of ideas and thoughts and the beginnings of discussions.”
She and her husband were discussing a new community space to open up. Thus, given her passions for books and community, and the disappointment over seeing bookstores close, they decided on a bookselling place.
They didn’t just want to open a bookstore, though. They wanted a place that fostered community and a place that encouraged slowing down—pausing—and thinking.
Tina wasn’t answering a need for books, but a need for a slower pace and a moment to pause and reflect.
This post is part of a series for AccelerateDFW's Storytelling initiative. For more insights on entrepreneurs in DFW and beyond, visit the Storytelling page.
“There's like hard scientific data that shows that we need this and that our society can't continue at the pace that we're continuing and that's what we identified really early on and said, like, that's what we want to provide even if people don't quite realize it,” said Tina.
Leaves Book and Tea encourages this through a separate space, community events, and tea.
Selling Books, Tea, and a Place to Pause
It’s important to distinguish between the “big box” bookstores and independent bookshops. When large bookstore chains were slowly falling, small bookshops were on the rise.
Tina has her own take on this:
“I think that spoke to a need that was already there that people were finding success with that because there was this desire for a personalized experience … I think the need that we identified and tried to fill that we didn't necessarily think people realized … people who would come in because they liked the idea of disconnecting and being present and I didn't think that they would, in the beginning, necessarily capitalize on that, they would just go, ‘Oh, I really love the concept of that’ … The longer we are open and the more we interacted with people, I think that they began to take more advantage of that.”
She didn’t want customers to just pick up a book, get some tea, and leave. She wanted them to enjoy a space crafted specifically for reading and imbibing tea—this was the greater need her store sought to satisfy.
As an independent bookshop, she isn’t alone. Tina is part of a network of independent bookshops in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area—places that specifically try to answer this need. One of them, The Dock, is in Fort Worth, and focuses on African American and black literature. There are also some in Dallas, like Lucky Dog Books or Deep Vellum Books.
“I think that's something that's growing and honestly I think it's really missing in the DFW area … a little bit more of this bookstore, literary arts kind of culture. Dallas has made some really great strides and that's been my hope from the beginning that Fort Worth could join in that so that DFW could be seen more prominently from that perspective,” Tina said.
Of course, Tina’s shop is unique because it doesn’t just offer books and a space for community—it’s got tea.
It stands in contrast to coffee. Coffee typically denotes the mad morning rush, the quick blast of caffeine. Tea is “tea time.” Tea is slipped slowly in the afternoon as one thinks, reflects, or converses. Thus, tea culture was the perfect fit for Tina’s book space.
“[T]he more I thought about it,” Tina said, “the more tea and tea culture was really fascinating to me and I felt like it was really missing, honestly in more than Fort Worth, but in Texas and in the South. I took a couple trips up to the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast and it felt like there are lots of tea shops that feel like coffee shops … but we don't really have that here as much at the time, and the more we thought about the type of communal space that we wanted to create, the more we were really impressed by this idea.”
Of course, here in the South we value our iced tea—but tea shops and a focus on hot tea, perhaps as Tina has observed, is lacking. She still loves coffee, of course.
Tea also worked from a business perspective, as it provides a better margin than book sales.
The tea is intertwined with Tina’s shop—it’s in the name—and complements the independent bookshop for a unique space in Fort Worth, centered not on books but on pause and reflection.
To learn how Leaves Book and Tea Shop adapted to the pandemic, give the accompanying podcast a listen!
Leaves Book and Tea Shop isn’t a standard bookstore. Their selection process is more…selective.
Tina said they have 200 to 300 titles at any given time. They chose titles based on Tina’s personal recommendations, and have since expanded to the staff’s favorites and books relevant to current events.
“But we have always arranged our shelves based on topic, rather than genre,” Tina said. “So you don't walk in and go to the historical fiction section or the memoir section. You walk in, and you might go to the section on like death and dying, or subjects that are taboo, or … how to be an activist, those sorts of things because I firmly believe that you can think you're a certain type of reader, but I want you to discover that you might find things that you wouldn't normally have picked up but because it's a topic that you're interested in you pick it up instead”
Community feedback influences what’s placed on the shelves, too. Tina’s reached out via social media to Fort Worth’s Near Southside to build a community selections shelf. In one example, she asked for their recommended titles for entrepreneurs.
Leaves receives requests for reviewing or selling books “constantly.” Lucky for these requesters, Leaves has a consignment program. Anyone who has published or self-published a book can put it on Leaves’ shelf, barring minor rules that titles can’t be hateful or promote violence and such things. Leaves pays out quarterly to the author, and thus gives virtually anyone who has had a book published exposure and royalties.
“That's actually been something that people in our community have also really enjoyed, they walk right over to our local authors section to just see what's there and what the people in our community are writing and thinking about,” Tina said.
Leaves networks with the local author community by word-of-mouth and had reached out to the North Texas Book Festival to start connecting.
Books are the platform through which Tina builds a community, thus answering her and her family’s original passion while also filling the independent bookshop space.
Tina founded Leaves Book and Tea in Fort Worth’s Near Southside neighborhood, a section others in this series call home. It’s a place where small, independent businesses thrive.
Near Southside Business owners post to group text channels about different issues they’re having or advice they have on business operations. Tina’s organized a group of business owners in the greater Southside area that meet monthly to collaborate, brainstorm cross-promotional strategy, or even discuss rudimentary issues like street closures.
“I do think that the Near Southside is attractive and growing for independent businesses to come and open and we're seeing a lot of that,” Tina said. “Like so many small businesses are finding their home here in Near Southside. It's not to say that there aren't other parts of Fort Worth that could be that or that are that currently, but there's definitely a different vibe[.]”
Other parts of Fort Worth with their own unique characters would be West Seventh, Clear Fork or South Hulen. The Near Southside’s character is most complementary towards companies like Leaves, who are “quirky” and have their “own personality” as Tina describes it.
“Like it prides itself on being like kind of down home, next door neighbor feel,” said Tina. “And if that's what matches someone's customer base, then it's a great place to be.”
Bookshop Balance: Struggles and Rewards
Tina enjoys data—by her own words, she loves a good spreadsheet—but when Leaves was a young business, she didn’t have a lot of data to work with.
“And so it wasn't unexpected that so many things would not be answered or difficult to predict, but I also didn't have any framework for knowing what to expect for that. … I feel so relieved now, two years in, to go ‘Okay, now I have a set of data that I can look at to help me understand and make better, more informed decisions.’”
While she lacked years of collected data, Tina had great people. Her staff is family. They all know Tina’s daughters, who spend time at the shop, and even when the staff leave the company they don’t want to be taken off the group chat.
She’s also built strong bonds with her customers:
“We have a lot of regular customers, and it's just people that I wouldn't necessarily have met in the course of my daily goings on … and they walk in and it's like, ‘Oh, I haven't seen you in a while!’ It feels like a reunion with friends.”
The thrill of this connection with customers reminds Tina why she opened up the bookshop.
“I can remember moments where like our shop was full of people who were talking and laughing and had their phones aside or who were reading, and it was like ‘Oh my gosh’ … I got teary, like this is what we wanted, this is what we were hopeful for, this space, not that it was full, but it was what people were doing in the space that was really fun and exciting,” Tina said.
Creatives, artists, and entrepreneurs all share a similar joy: seeing their vision in action. To bring the ideas in your head to actualization is one of life’s supreme struggles and intense joys.
Note: The quotations may have been edited for grammatical purposes and to remove chit-chat phrases ("you know", etc.) or repeated words ("and, and", etc.). The audio in the podcast may have also been edited to remove chit-chat phrases, repeated words or long periods of silence.