WALPOLE — As a child, Sarah Erlandson saved her allowance and once walked to an upscale gift store in Norwood Center and tried to buy her mother a knickknack. She thought it was $1, but the price was actually $100.
The saleswoman smiled and pointed the embarrassed 8-year-old to a teacup, saucer, and plate. Erlandson purchased the “trio” for $4, though now she realizes it was worth much more.
“I’ve had a love for china my whole life,” Erlandson said.
That love has grown into a bona fide tea room at her vintage rental and gift shop, Fancy That, which began serving afternoon tea last month.
The trio still rests among her mother’s finest in a china cabinet in Erlandson’s Walpole shop, where tea drinkers gathered on a recent sunny Sunday to celebrate the final permitting of the tea room.
“There are a lot of people who believe that tea tastes better out of a china cup,” said Brad McCracken, Erlandson’s husband, who is the shop’s general manager. “And that’s what gives rise to our business.”
While some swank hotels and restaurants in Boston have embraced the genteel tradition, Erlandson said her tea room is a rarity in the suburbs. Tea rooms are hard to sustain, she said, and shops usually end up becoming restaurants serving other things.
“I think that ruins it for the real purists,” she said. “For me, personally, if I’m going to tea, I don’t want to sit next to someone who is eating a burger. And I don’t want him having a coffee.”
Afternoon tea is a centuries-old tradition that started in England to curb feelings of faintness before a late supper. The originator, Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, called for a light meal of tea, balanced with crustless finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets.
A proper tea, Erlandson explained, is displayed on a three-tiered server, with scones on the top (because back in the day they would come out covered, as they were served warm), miniature crustless sandwiches in the middle, and petite sweets on the bottom.
The quirky Anglophile couple serve afternoon tea on mismatched vintage china — a choice of 29 tea varieties accompanied by the traditional light fare made in-house and specialty products (such as clotted cream and jam) imported from England.
“It’s going to be nice and proper — I hope. I hope it’s going to be proper,” Erlandson said. “I have some English friends who I’ve asked to come and have tea here and make sure I’m doing it correctly.”
Afternoon tea is by reservation only and seats up to 12 people.
“I want to keep it intimate; I don’t want people to feel like they’re in a restaurant,” she said. “I am not a restaurant, I am a tea room And I want people to feel like they’ve come into my home” — which they have; the couple live upstairs.
“There’s definitely a segment of society that is all about tea,” Erlandson said. “There are women who just go to tea rooms all around wherever they can drive.”
They include women like Andrea Occhionero, a Milford wedding planner who has been traveling to tea rooms across New England and beyond for years.
“I really enjoy the ambience of tea rooms — I just love all the accoutrements and the femininity of it, the Victorian look of it, the softness of the colors,” she said, toying with the layered ruffles of the vintage cloth on the table where sweets were spread. “I love the beauty.”
Lucinda Dohanian of Cranston, R.I., the “Crazy for Tea Time” blogger, brought her husband, Dan Welch. Erlandson and Dohanian have been following each other’s pages on Facebook for some time, and Dohanian was eager to visit.
“It’s really just as it should be,” Dohanian said. “I think it’s fun and it’s classy and relaxing. Tea is an event. It’s not a meal, it’s an event. It’s something that you get to share with your family and friends. It makes everything slow down and you get that wonderful time together.”
A typical tea, Erlandson said, probably means sitting for two hours.
“It’s a zenful experience,” she said. “You’re relaxing, you’re actually connecting with whomever you’re going to tea with. You’re not e-mailing or texting someone, you’re actually seeing someone face-to-face.”
Erlandson’s infatuation with the era began when she couldn’t track down enough vintage teacups for her Victorian-themed wedding 10 years ago. So she started collecting.
Browsing estate sales and antiques stores, she amassed an arresting collection of cups and saucers and thought, “I can’t be the only one who wants to go to tea somewhere or have a tea party and want a proper cup and saucer.” And she was right.
As soon as she had enough of a certain item, she advertised it for rental, with the proceeds going back into buying more and expanding the business, which can now provide full service — with mismatched flatware dating from 1840 to 1940 — for 300.
“It’s all pristine, nothing shabby-chic about it,” McCracken said.
When she started doing it, no one else was, and business spread by word of mouth. The couple have done events all over the country, shipping the vintage wares in military crates spray-painted in Erlandson’s signature color: hot pink.
The retail shop is built around items that Erlandson looks to purchase but can’t find anywhere — items like a rondo, a decorative lined napkin she imports from Poland that looks like a fan when closed and opens into a circle to be used as a place mat.
Jams and jellies from France and England, loose-leaf and bagged teas, molded sugars, tea bread, sweets, jars of lemon curd and clotted cream line the shelves and antique tables of the small and airy rooms.
The “saucer crackers” — floral packages that open with a snap to reveal scrolls bearing punchy messages that raise a smile or create debate — are a favorite of Marianne Cercome, a self-proclaimed “tea nut” from Walpole who has enjoyed tea all over the world.
“It absolutely adds to the community,” she says. “It’s beautiful and tasteful and it’s just a fun and relaxing place to come.”
The 89-year-old Cercome said she grew up in a different world, and the tea room helps her reminisce about teas she once had with her grandmother and mother, both of whose china she inherited.
While the business lends itself to something that could be stuffy, dusty, cluttered, and chintzy, Erlandson’s shop is none of those things. The elegant appeal is almost nostalgic. Redolent and evocative, the shop is the product of years of scrupulous work.
After years of collecting and studying and researching, Erlandson can take one look at a piece of china and, before turning it over, know who the maker is. By tapping a tea cup and listening to the sound it makes, she can tell if it’s cracked.
Beyond authenticity, Erlandson has an eye — and heart — for beauty, and an appreciation of a bygone era.
“It is so consuming in me that I have no choice but to do this. It just comes out and this is it,” she said, gesturing around the pink room. “Thank God I have a great husband who embraces it — I am blessed that that’s the case and he embraces pink, so we’re good.”
And the shop’s mission goes beyond self-fulfillment.
“I think life is hard, and you never know what someone’s struggle is,” she said. “And I think with a place like this, if I can create a moment where someone can forget their troubles at the door, then I feel like I’ve achieved something.”