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The New York Times, by Andrew Willett

The Sweet Smell of Longevity at McNulty’s
Published: January 17, 2014

You can smell the store from the sidewalk: the warm, dark aroma of coffee beans.

But when you step inside this Greenwich Village institution, the coffee scent becomes more layered, full of sweetness and bitterness, probably because it has been soaking into the walls and the battered wood floors since the 1920s. And when customers squeeze past one another in the narrow aisle that rings McNulty’s Tea & Coffee, subtler notes of fruit, flowers and spices emerge from more than 100 kinds of loose-leaf tea.

Overhead, fans on the old tin ceiling waft the fragrance out the transom. It is a cheap, nearly irresistible advertising strategy. “On a windy day,” David Wong, one of the owners, said, “you can smell it on the corner.”

The tiny store on Christopher Street has supplied caffeine addicts with bags of the good stuff since the early 20th century. It was founded not far up the block, at 125 Christopher, in 1895, by a couple of Irish brothers, one of whom was a judge — at least that is how Mr. Wong heard it — before moving to its current spot.

Mr. Wong, 44, and his father, Wing H. Wong, 76, have owned the store since 1980. They have watched the West Village change from the funky heart of the city’s gay community to something more mannered and upscale. Many longtime residents and stores have left in search of lower rents, but Mr. Wong said their shop was sustained by its mix of customers, not only regulars who come in to restock their favorite custom blends, but also tourists and online buyers.

The advance into the neighborhood of Starbucks, and the rise of “artisanal” coffee places like Stumptown Coffee Roasters, has had little effect on their customer base. “If anything,” Mr. Wong said, “it actually helped our business, because they’ve really turned people on to better coffees.”

The shop is crammed with supplies. Shelves hold jar after jar of tea in dazzling profusion, with names like Golden Black Gunpowder and Lok On With Tiny Orchids. There are teas in tins and boxes as well, from around the world, and a multitude of teapots. Burlap sacks of coffee beans are stacked like sandbags.

Mr. Wong said the key to the store’s success is its personalized service. Any member of the staff can be called upon to suggest drinks for any taste — he cites the Da Hong Pao oolong as a personal favorite — or to explain, say, the difference between the Special Mocha Java blend and the Very Special Mocha Java. (To be very special, in this case, the blend requires beans from Yemen rather than Ethiopia.)

Larry Haag, 59, lives nearby and has bought his coffee and tea at McNulty’s for six years. His most recent haul included some Guatemalan Antigua for his French press. “You want to take care of the local people, the local stores,” he said over the growl of the grinders, “but this is a store that would make it anywhere.”

All purchases are sent home in white paper bags, their contents marked in red using custom rubber stamps kept behind the register, another McNulty’s trademark. And for the customer who does not want her husband to know that he has been switched to decaffeinated coffee, Mr. Wong can be persuaded to mislabel a purchase. “They tell me, ‘Don’t use the decaf stamp on the bag,’ ” Mr. Wong said.

© 2014 The New York Times Company

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