Say what you will about other places, but McNulty's Specialty Teas and Coffee, at 109 Christopher Street in New York City is as close to a real time machine as one can get. At least a time machine absent any selector dial or switch — this time machine takes one back a hundred years give or take ten; no more.

New York is a paradise for those who, like this writer, delectate in fine experiences for the senses of smell and taste. Whether the best cigars, smoked salmon, caviar, wine, or even farm-fresh produce the year around, the "Big Apple" has it. It's a wonder, then, that after many years having lived in the city it was only a few weeks ago I ventured into this amazing emporium of all things brewed: McNulty's. We've visited several times since then, and wonder each time we leave why we just don't try to buy the whole damned place (or at least its contents).

Whole Foods Eat Your Heart Out

Suffice it to say that your local gourmet store cannot approach the variety nor quality of the precious beans found here; even the really fussy places who've treated themselves to a Probst coffee roaster (one of the world's finest bulk roasting machines for coffee beans). As for tea, they've got the whole city beat by a mile. And this wonderful selection and sublime sensual experience can be had at a fair price; nothing in the regular catalog exceeds $25 per "quarter;" a quarter pound; the preferred measure for purchasing a week's worth of good tea for two.

The whole experience is best summed up by quoting from their 2008 catalog:

A visit to our store is like a journey into another age. Located in the heart of New York's Greenwich Village, the aura of a century long gone is timelessly preserved. Immediately upon entering the shop, one's senses are delighted by the many aromas of coffees and teas from around the world. Sacks of coffee and chests of tea with obscure marking from far away lands are visible everywhere. Even the bins, chests, and scales, with which these products are stored and handled, date back to the previous century.

They're very, very nice, too!

On our first visit, we admitted to the gentleman who walked over and offered assistance that we were probably novices compared to the usual customers of the store. That's when this lovely gentleman nearly literally took me by the hand and showed us around the store. He then asked specifics. This first time was going to be a tea-purchasing adventure only; as we'd recently set ourselves back beaucoup bucks on whole-bean coffee and a home grinder. Our money had enriched the shareholders of the house of Krups.

How courteous that when I inquired about Peppermint tea the sales clerk warned that there was Oolong mixed in and that it contained caffeine. This marked the beginning of a wonderful relationship. I told him that caffeine was one of the few vices I allow myself any longer and if it's there, so be it. My first "quarter" bought! Upon hearing that he became even more passionate about his product. We asked about a fine Earl Grey; they insinuate the bergamot oil themselves, into the finest Oolong. My second "quarter." At this point I realized that I'd have enough tea for a Texas debutantes' society Sunday afternoon soiree, so I slowed down.

Behind the counter was another sales clerk (now, I don't know if these individuals were employees or owner/employees). Obviously Chinese, I tried my poor Mandarin. His response was gracious, indicating that Cantonese was the language of his heritage. So English was what we used to converse about the different Chinese teas that I inquired about.

The Question: What Don't They Carry?

A special on Pu-Erh in bricks from China enticed me. Again, our helpful salesman offered advice that we already knew: "You have to break it up, you know." These concentrated bricks are to tea what hashish is to marijuana. Oily with resinous flavor, all I can tell you is that this Pu-Erh was fabulous with dried Chrisanthemum blossoms purchased at the Chinese apothecary. This combination of an intense, aromatic black tea with the calming, lovely taste of the dried flowers is de rigueur for serving with the Chinese dim sum luncheon or breakfast.

One can find a Chemex coffee brewer; the world's best for bringing out flavor (but a lot of work). No fancy electrical gadgets here; if you want espresso you're going to have to brew it in one of their stovetop devices. Very good coffee press devices are available. I found it queer that they had very little to offer in the way of tea balls; this because true connoisseurs of the steeped liquor of the tea leaf love having a few leaves occasionally land in the bottom of their cups; unless it's filtered out by an attachment inside one's tea-pot.

It's worth a trip westward to tread down the street where e.e. cummings lived (closer to 6th Avenue) just to experience this wonderful place. It's a testimony that fine quality at a fair price equals value; perhaps this is the key to their longevity. The overall charm of the place doesn't hurt, either.

McNulty's Tea and Coffee, Inc.
109 Christopher Street
New York, NY 10014

Store hours: Mon.-Sat 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; Sunday 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Telephone orders and inquiries may be made between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Mondays to Fridays at: 800-356-5200; in New York State (or overseas) 212-242-5351.