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story.lead_photo.caption Haley Stokes, Rebecca Martindale Leighton, and Taylor Bowman. Photo by Kelsi Brinkmeyer / Texarkana Gazette.

A longtime academic and once-aspiring architect is living her life to a tea as owner of Urban Tea Town, which opened in January.

Nestled next door to Old Tyme Burger Shoppe at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Arkansas Boulevard, Dr. Rebecca Leighton designed the cozy space where visitors can enjoy more than myriad varieties of teas, coffees and baked goods while appreciating and enjoying art and literature.

A lifelong tea drinker, Rebecca and her husband, Dana, have one shelf of the pantry in their house devoted to tea. The couple visits tea shops and coffee shops when traveling because of their love of the two beverages.

Urban Tea Town's tag line, "Your World in a Cup," reflects those travels. But it's fellow Arkansas entrepreneurs and business owners who have primarily shaped the local shop's products and vibe.

"Whenever I started this shop, I knew I wanted it to be a tea shop because I love Savoy Tea Co. in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Bill Beyer met with me and told me his story about how he got started in the tea industry. I buy all my tea from them, source it from them and rebrand it. The signature drinks are their recipes," Rebecca said. "Kyle Hansen is my man there when I order."

Rebecca knew there would have to be a food element to Urban Tea Town, so she set about studying and researching.

"When I started, I didn't know much about owning a cafe," she said.

She enrolled in Small Business Administration classes out of Magnolia, Arkansas.

She also met Christy Ouei who owns the Mule Kick in Magnolia, a coffee shop, store and restaurant.

"She opened six months before mine and she was rattling off things faster than I could absorb them."

Christy told Rebecca if coffee was part of the plan for Urban Tea Town, Derek Campbell at the Ouachita Coffee Roaster in Mena, Arkansas, was the person to see.

"This man was so impressive, I mimic everything he does, down to the Slayer espresso machine," Rebecca said.

He has recently expanded his business to have a micro-brew pub and pizzeria.

"He has created an oasis," Rebecca said of Derek.

And, Rebecca is also about setting a certain atmosphere and ambiance.

Along with assistant managers/baristas Haley Stokes and Taylor Bowman joining Rebecca, they offer cookies, muffins and scones that are baked on the premises. They also tempt Texarkanians' tastebuds with colorful Alchemy Macarons from Fayetteville and bagels flown in from New York.


It's by design

Rebecca has carefully curated every detail of the shop from the alternating blue-and-green colored table stands to the business' signature feature — a round bookcase encircling a blue clock face.

"The chairs and bases of the tables I got at the old Schlotsky's before they remodeled it. Melody (Reddell) at Pace Glass had the tops. I had to take the table bases and sand them myself. They were corroded and dirty from where people put their feet on them. We did every other table stand blue and green to pick up on the Urban Tea Town logo," she said.

Customers who frequent The Mustard Seed Spice Market on Texas Boulevard, which is owned by Melody and her husband, Jeff, may notice that business and Urban Tea Town have steel canisters in the wall labeled with products each business sells, a matter of Rebecca adopting Melody's design.

Glass boards for the menu allow for a quick change of the menus at Urban Tea Town.

"I've always had an affinity for design. If you look around this shop, you can pick that up. If you came to my home, you would see that. All it takes to design is money, my husband says," Rebecca said with a laugh.

Acquiring the large clock made for an interesting time.

"My sister, Kathy Martindale, and I had gone to Dallas Marketplace. It is open to sellers. Nobody can just walk in there, it's like Mall of Americas. It is huge. I saw this shop across the way made out of trees, but there were trees were made out of lights. I had to go to that shop. The clock was up on a shelf high. My sister said, 'there is your bookcase.' It was so expensive and I didn't care It has become my signature feature," Rebecca said.

And when people visit Urban Tea Town, Rebecca's wants them to take the time to savor a custom-made drink and baked good while feeding their spirit with good books. It's her mission.

"I am a lover of the written word. I love to read," she said.

There are a few rules regarding the books at the shop, which operates on a take a book, leave a book policy.

"It has to be a work of fiction, a story to get absorbed into. No self-help, no agenda pushed here. Write in the cover of your books so as they cycle through the shop, it will build a community in itself," she said.

Art showing Texarkana's building history, created by Dean Lynn, adorn the Urban Tea Town's walls.

On another wall and shelf is the origami art of Kamrin Vega, one of the store's patrons.

"It's supposed to be good luck to fold 1,000 origami cranes and a wish will come true. We bought shadow boxes for some of the cranes and then put the other in glass vases so people could see them."


Life unfolds

The path of Rebecca's career trajectory is one of persistence and lifelong learning, having worked in the education field and earning a doctorate.

As a teenager, Rebecca attended Arkansas High School and was on track to attend college. She had applied to and been accepted by the University of Arkansas, Southern Methodist University and Louisiana State University.

But it would be more than a decade before she pursued a college degree.

"I fell in love with my high school sweetheart and got pregnant at 17. I tried to finish high school, but it was hard to do. We quit school and I immediately got my GED. My intention was to go back to college at some point," she said.

After the young marriage did not work out, she went to work for CHRISTUS St. Michael and also worked a stint at Georgia Pacific, which is now Domtar.

At the age of 29, she attended University of Arkansas and earned an undergraduate degree in communications.

She then started working toward a master's degree but experienced burnout after earning 15 hours of credit.

"I left that program and went out and worked in the field for about five years as a project manager for companies in the Dallas-Fort Worth area," she said.

She went back to UA, where while earning her master's degree in educational technology she worked as an instructional designer, completing the degree about 2004.

Upon graduation, she oversaw University of Florida's pharmacy school's video recordings.

"At that time, online and distance learning was coming to the forefront," Rebecca said.

She and her daughter, Stormy, stayed in Florida only a year, primarily because it didn't have the allure of home.

"I am a Southern girl. The entire time I worked there no one ever said 'let me take you to lunch and get to know you.' They didn't want to be friends with you. I don't know if it was the nature of the state or several catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina."

Another reason to come home was Stormy's pregnancy.

Rebecca worked again in instructional design, then as UA's medical sciences rural hospital program's online learning director. Afterward, she returned to UA to work in their information services division and ultimately becoming the director of web and instruction-based services.

Rebecca finished her doctorate in curriculum and instruction in 2015. Her dissertation emphasis was technology.

Most recently, she worked at Texas A&M University-Texarkana as an assistant professor of instructional technology education.

But it was the loss of her son-in-law Matthew Nolen in a motorcycle accident on Memorial Day 2019 that caused Rebecca to realize time was fleeting and it was time to fulfill her dream of opening a tea shop.

Rebecca cherishes her family.

Stormy, Matthew's widow and Rebecca's daughter, has two children: Jada Davis and Dax Nolen.

Rebecca's son Dustin Davis, and his wife, Courtney, live in Virginia with their children Brook and Isobel.

Rebecca and her husband, Dr. Dana Leighton, who is a professor of psychology, love their beverages.

She prefers tea, he prefers coffee.

"Dana is an amateur barista coffee roaster. He has this old funky laptop and old popcorn roaster like an air popper," Rebecca said. He uses the laptop to formulate and calibrate how and when to roast coffee in the air popper.

Rebecca said she is blessed to have to support of her family and the community in managing Urban Tea Town. She hopes to expand the Urban Tea Town concept, perhaps to downtown Texarkana.

"We are lucky in that we have gotten a good, strong following of people and people love the shop and they are good supporters," she said.

But for now, her business suits her, and Texarkana, to a tea.

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