In 1994, Valerie Peacock walked away from a 21-year career teaching English in Prince George's County public schools to unlock the door to a dream.
"I was burned out big time," said Peacock, 49, owner of the Little Teapot, tucked away in the circa 1916 carriage house on the grounds of Montpelier Mansion in South Laurel.
"I gave up my retirement. But the quality of life meant more to me," she said.
Giving up the academic challenges for life as a small-business owner has reshaped her daily schedule. "Time really means nothing to me now. I no longer look at the calendar. When I was teaching, I was just waiting for Friday."
To Peacock, her calling--tea--assumes an otherworldly aura. "I love the serenity and the beauty that surrounds the idea of tea," she said. "Tea is not just a beverage, it's really a spiritual way of life. It's so different from coffee or soda or juice."
She drinks up to five cups a day herself and eagerly tries to convert others to tea drinking.
Peacock's shop celebrates the ancient beverage in all its multifaceted splendor for a growing roster of customers, or friends, as Peacock fondly calls them.
Shelves are stocked with fragrant, exotic blends from around the world, such as First Estate teas, which, she said, "would only come from one tea estate, which would make it very special."
Cases are brimming with items like Russian porcelain and English bone china.
Another display holds a collection of CDs with piano compositions like "The Art of Tea." And there's stationery featuring Carol Wilson cards and note pads in portfolios that read, "Things to Do After I Have Tea." A tea bag is attached to the note pad. The back wall is filled with leading English brands such as Taylors of Harrogate and P.G. Tips.
Her biggest seller is Yorkshire Gold, she said. "I have a lot of British customers or people who have lived in England. It's a real full-bodied tea." Yorkshire Gold has surpassed the popularity of Harney and Sons Fine Teas, an American tea served in hotels such as the Ritz and Palm Court chains. Teapots are her second fastest-moving item, along with cups, saucers and strainers and classical and jazz CDs.
Don't expect to find inexpensive commercial brands such as Lipton or Bigelow on the menu. "The tea you get in the grocery store," she said, "is primarily tea dust. It's the smallest particle of the leaf. It makes a very fast brew."
Other attention-getters, such as English candies and cookies, are favorites among employees of the National Security Agency at nearby Fort Meade who have lived in England. And there is her inventory of books with titles like "The Book of Green Tea" and "The History of Tea." Peacock also sells stationery because, as she firmly believes, "writing and tea go hand-in-hand."
The shop does not serve tea or food for consumption.
Peacock's customer base, she reported, remains middle-aged, upscale women who drive from as far away as Baltimore and Northern Virginia. "They already have a knowledge of tea, and they know what they want. I'm just a facilitator. More men are coming in, though."
Her love of tea dates to her childhood, Peacock said, and watching her mother, Mabel Ricciardi--now her sole employee--prepare the drink. "She would get her tin of jasmine tea down from the cupboard. I knew it was a special thing. And cups and saucers, not mugs, were taken out."
Peacock's inspiration for owning her own business came at a shop on Main Street in Laurel, now closed, where she would deal with the stress of teaching by treating herself to facials and massages. It was there she got the idea to rent a slice of the store to sell tea and tea accessories.
Sale by sale, she generated a modest following. When business became brisk, she jumped to another shop on Main Street in Laurel, where she did business from one wall. Later, she found a small storefront nearby. After the move, business continued to increase, and the cramped quarters proved to be her biggest obstacle. There wasn't even enough elbow room for a business office. When vendors would came calling with their wares, they had to talk business in the display area.
Soon, a courtship of convenience began to brew. A project near and dear to Peacock's heart was her sponsorship of twice-monthly teas inside the Georgian-style mansion's east wing beginning in 1996.
For $18 a person, tea lovers would come by for a full formal tea, along with cucumber sandwiches minus the crust--the English way--and scones--a British biscuit-like cake--and dessert.
In early 1998, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns and manages the mansion near the banks of the Patuxent River, began emphasizing the value of marketing its various historic properties and opening them to private entrepreneurs.
Because Peacock had built a name for herself with her teas, she was invited to submit a proposal to occupy space at the Mansion's gift shop, which was run by a volunteer group, the Friends of Montpelier.
Peacock entered the competition and produced a report that included a business plan and her reasons why the public-private partnership would be a logical one. She sold officials on the idea. She opened the Little Teapot behind a thicket of trees at the end of a brick path in September 1998.
Mary Jurkiewicz, the facility manager at Montpelier, said that Peacock "brings skills that we don't have in merchandising. It takes a lot of work to run a shop like that." Under the contract, Peacock pays $450 a month in rent. Ten percent of her retail space must be set aside for Montpelier memorabilia. Peacock pays the Mansion a flat fee for the teas, which have become a regular Friday event. The teas are booked through the end of the year; they'll begin again on Valentine's Day weekend.
Elva Cox, of Gambrills, was in the shop one recent day. For someone like Cox, who grew up in Australia, the Little Teapot was a true find, she said. "I like all of her tea items," said Cox, who helps organize tea fund-raisers at her church in Odenton. She's delighted that Bill, her husband of 30 years, has finally started drinking more tea.
"It doesn't have as much caffeine as coffee does, and it has anti-toxins that are supposed to fight cancer," she said.
During the holiday season, Peacock is keeping the shop open seven days a week to fill orders, greet friends and exchange notes about tea.
Often she is asked what country grows and harvests the best tea. The answer: China. That's largely because of its ideal climate and soil.
"The Chinese really guard their tea," Peacock said. "Very little gets out. They keep the good stuff.
Kenya, Vietnam and Argentina also are growing excellent teas, she said, and Hawaii and South Carolina operate tea-growing plantations.
Still, the West gets scant respect from tea-rich exporters. To illustrate the point, she said that at the turn of the century, America was sent tea that contained sawdust "just to make the weight. And we drank it. Some countries think we wouldn't know the difference between good tea and bad tea."
During many autumns, Peacock and the editor of Tea magazine, a national publication, arrange a Tea Train Tour. For about $1,700 a person, the group boards a 1932 Pullman railroad car and makes tracks for New England, where they sample the brilliant foliage while sipping their favorite blend. Come evening, they retire to some of the finer hotels in Boston and New London, Conn.
The junket, Peacock explained, is designed to promote her need for peace and quiet. "Tea and trains are supposed to slow you down," she said.
One of her favorite moments of the trip, she said, is when the group does "the royal wave" while the train is in the station. "We imitate Queen Elizabeth. And people wave back like crazy."
The Little Teapot, 9401 Montpelier Dr., Laurel, is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the holidays. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 301-498-8486.
CAPTION: Owner Valerie Peacock shows items she sells at the Little Teapot at Montpelier.