Coffee Bars and the Quest for Third Places

An interesting article appeared in the New York Times this week about a trend of some coffee shops not offering seating – standing room only – and trying to make the space more about the coffee and the other customers than about hunkering down, plugged into your iPhone, iPad, and iPod.  This spurred some thoughts and I beg you to bear with me as I bring them up in the disjointed manner one might expect after having had a double espresso on an empty stomach.

First, a few excerpts from the article, to give you the general idea of it:

At times, the large back room at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has so many customers typing and wearing noise-canceling headphones that it looks like an office without the cubicles.  A second Café Grumpy location, in Chelsea, prohibited laptops after too many customers ran extension cords across the room. …

When Café Grumpy’s owners … decided to open a third location … they built a solution to the laptop problem right into the design. The furniture consists of a counter in the back and a chest-high table in the front. …

“I don’t think I’d ever do a bigger space with tables and chairs again,” [one of the owners] said. “I appreciate the idea of when you go someplace and it feels like a home away from home, but I don’t think it should be a home office away from home.” [emphasis mine]

Stumptown Coffee
Photo courtesy the New York Times

Earlier this summer, the Bluebird Coffee Shop in the East Village replaced half its tables and most of the chairs with two counters and a few stools.  “A coffee shop should be a place to meet your friends and hold conversations and cultivate ideas instead of — I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, so I have to be careful — instead of sticking your head in a laptop,” said [Bluebird’s owner].


Third Places

Years ago, just as I was starting university, coffee shops were starting to come into fashion in the US.  Starbucks was around, although not as ubiquitous as it is these days.  I remember reading an in-depth article about the concept of Third Places, an article that contributed to my interest, and my brief majoring in, urban studies.

Third Places are informal public gathering spaces that offer a balance between the spheres of home and work, the first and second places, respectively, in our lives.  Just as a tripod offers more stability than a bipod, the third place can serve to keep us from falling into a mental trap of “home to work and back again”.

The article, and many like it, identify examples of third places such as the cafe in French culture, the corner pub in the British Isles, and the espresso bar in Italy.  Places that serve to anchor neighborhood life.  The underlying thesis of the article was that the overall quality of life in a society is better when there is such a third place and declines in the absence of such spaces.

The corner pub has served as a third place in Britain


Do We Actually Have Third Places?

I’ve observed is that we’ve built a great number of spaces that are designed to look like third places – indeed, Starbucks’ founder and CEO Howard Schultz (no relation) acknowledges that as one of the omnipresent chain’s motivations.  But these spaces don’t actually function as true third places. 

How many of you go to a business like Starbucks regularly enough that you know the employees who work there, but don’t know any of the other customers?  There are certainly many small businesses within walking distance of my house (including a Starbucks, I type a bit guiltily) where I recognize the staff but none of the patrons.

The element that is missing from our pseudo third places is our interaction with our neighbors, the other customers in the place.  Some of that may be because the third places we visit are largely outside of our neighborhood, often on the way to (or nearby) work.  That begs the question, are they really third places in the true definition of the word?  They cannot anchor a neighborhood if they are not in your neighborhood.

As an aside, I have to wonder whether the increasing political polarization in the US is due in some small part to this lack of third places in which we interact with our neighbors.  When we don’t know our neighbors, much less have the opportunity to interact and converse with them, what hope is there of having a civil dialogue about the issues of the day?


What About My Third Places?

About a five-minute walk away from my home, at the mouth of the soi (alley) where I live, there is a small corner spot that is a small, failing Japanese bar.  It is steps away from the entrance to the Skytrain station, near a busy intersection, and across the street from a private international school.  It strikes me that it would be the perfect location for a coffee bar that the NY Times article talks about.  Being at the gateway to my neighborhood and just next to a transit station, it would be the ideal crossing path for neighbors.  I don’t know if it would work financially – there are a lot of factors at play here – but in terms of being an effective third place, it would be well suited.

Another possibility is one of two small retail spots on the street level of my 8-story condo building.  It is currently empty but the juristic board says that a lease has been signed for someone to open a small cafe of some sort.  That would be an ideal third place, right?  Go down for a morning coffee, meet and chat with my building’s neighbors and other people in the neighborhood.  We’ll see if it works out like that.

Espresso Bar
Courtesy The Age newspaper, Melbourne

Somewhere in my mind, I imagine either patronizing (or owning) a place like the one pictured above.  An espresso bar that is crowded with people from the neighborhood, getting their coffee, chatting for a bit, and then going on their way.  Somewhere warm and convivial. 

What about you?  Do you have a third place?  Do you see an absence of third places in our societies?  And what do you think about coffee bars without a place to sit down and plug into your digital devices?


0 thoughts on “Coffee Bars and the Quest for Third Places

  1. I have actually been wondering if having wi-fi service is really all that lucrative for coffee shops–all it does is encourage people to take up space for 3 hours or so for the cost of a measly cup of coffee. Maybe this is a financial decision too, in addition to coffee shop owners becoming disenchanted with their disengaged customers.

  2. Huh! Great point! Nowadays, do people really need a 3rd place to chat face to face? Sounds like an old school. They can talk with million people via internet! That’s much more fun.

  3. Actually my third place is “Peaches”. It is a breakfast/lunch place that I have been going to each Sunday early in the morning. The staff knows me by first name and I know them. The regular customers also know each other and chat over the paper and coffee – no computers there!!

  4. Chris…I think that you and Tawn need to look into investing in that failing Japanese bar…turn it into a little bistro…put Tawn in charge of the ambience and YOU in charge of the food!!! Think of the great third place that you could establish there!!! With your personality and eclectic approach to the food you would have to take out the tables and chairs and make it standing room only for all of the customers!!!! I almost feel like my work IS my “third place” ( Can it be a 2nd AND a 3rd place?? lol). I know so many of my customers on a much more personal level, after working there for 10 years. It is like my friends are stopping by to visit. I had one sweet lady stop by yesterday, they just put her husband on hospice because of  bone cancer…I was able to stop what I was doing, give her my full attention. hold her hand and really LISTEN as she talked. Most of the time it is too busy to be able to give one customer that big block of time but it was as if God knew that she needed someone to really connect with and He cleared the way for it to be able to happen!!! I am so blessed to have a job that I really enjoy, why spend a third of your time here on earth at a place that you are unhappy about!!!! Have a great weekendRuth Ann

  5. I guess my third place is the ceramics studio – I go there often and know all the people (part of the art community) and we work and talk and have a good time playing in the mud. One of the “regulars” even designed t-shirts that said “Mud Club” on the back. I bet you would have fun creating a third place… but it is hard to eat standing up because you would eventually want to serve food.

  6. I agree that we are missing this knowing of our neighbors. I use the internet, but do not feel particularly connected to the people I come in contact within that setting. Part of the issue is that face-to-face contact involves a certain amount of vulnerability on the part of both participants. I don’t see where that vulnerability is necessary in any technological interaction. This is a multifaceted situation with no black/white answers, of course.I suppose the easiest way to illustrate is that in talking face-to-face with other people, I use my five senses to their fullest: sight – looking at the person, reading their expression and body language; hearing – listening to their voice, hearing the nuances of the speech; smell – being aware of aromas such as coffee, cologne, after-shave, fresh air after rain, stale air; taste – food/beverage if one is in a place for that; touch – the ability to reach out, holding hands, putting a hand on the other’s arm or shoulder, a slight tap or pat. These are important if we are to connect with family, friends, even strangers. They don’t happen on the internet.

  7. No I don’t have a third place. BUT, you should probably invest in that failing Japanese place and rejuvenate it and get it going by putting a coffee bar up in it.

  8. It seems to me that a third place would be more viable if Americans worked closer to where they live and commuted by means other than by car. If you commute 20 miles to a coffee shop and live in widely dispersed suburbia, you probably would rarely (if ever) run into the same people consistently, which I think is a prerequisite for striking up meaningful conversation.

  9. @Senlin – That’s a good point.  Suburban sprawl has done a great deal to disconnect us from our neighbors and fellow citizens.@murisopsis – The Mud Club sounds like a perfect example of a third place.@Redlegsix – That’s a very intresting example you give.  Having businesses to patronize where we have personal connections with the people who work there is also an important part of building a sense of community.  I’m glad you were in a position to reach out and comfort the lady.@Fatcat723 – Sounds like exactly the sort of place all of us would be lucky to have.@smallwoodk – That’s always confused me, too.  Couches, comfy chairs, and power outlets encourage people to linger.  A latte or even an expensive blended drink can’t possibly cover the costs if the person sits there two hours!@foggysunnymorning – There’s a lot to be said for the internet, and I suppose that Xanga is like a third place for me.  But at the same time, it connects me with people far away and disconnects me with my immediate community.  Connect more with others in other corners of the world is a good thing, but I don’t think the disconnection from the local neighborhood is very good.  We would benefit from both.@Wangium – “Cheers!” crossed my mind as I wrote this.  A place where everybody knows your name.@generasianx – Local Blockbuster store would be a good fit for you, I think, given your interest in movies!  What a shame, though, that we’re all going to digital, streaming from home and never even having to step one foot outside.@ZSA_MD – Several people have mentioned the Japanese place.  Talking with Tawn, I don’t think the local culture here would actually lend itself to that business model, but the idea is a neat one.  Maybe if I had money to spare!

  10. Great blog piece, Chris! I loved reading it. It’s the first time I’ve heard of the word “third place”, but I really like it. I don’t have a third place, myself, but I love the idea of going to a place regularly, to meet and talk with regulars.

  11. Am I the only person who thinks it was a bit OTT to take out the normal tables and chairs I agree that coffee shops etc should not be used for surfing the web for 2 hours, but what is so hard about telling customers ‘not’ to do it – ban the use of laptops on the premises. A simple notice put up in full view is all that is needed. I’m afraid I would not visit any coffee shop that went to the extreme of denying the comfort and convenience of many people because of the ignorance and lack of consideration by a few. If I go to a coffee shop, it’s usually for a ‘relaxing’ cup of coffee and a rest from shopping etc, and I doubt I’d find being made to stand very relaxing or inviting. As for 3rd places, I’m not sure I even have a 2nd !

  12. I remember you writing about 3rd place before. There’s a restaurant in my neighbourhood that has a communal table. There is a coffee shop also that has a small bench on the outside. If you tell them you’re just going to the park nearby, they let you bring your cup with you. But it’s not really a 3rd place though.

  13. @Chatamanda –  My understanding from the article (which I may have over-edited when posting the excerpts) is that the second shop they opened did attempt a laptop ban because of the tripping hazard of the cords running all over the floor, but they felt like they were constantly policing. In the third shop, they didn’t so much remove chairs but instead just chose a smaller space from day one, furnishing it only with a counter and stools. Some of the other coffee bars mentioned still have chairs but are trying to push the emphasis to the coffee and the socializing, rather than the solitude.@ElusiveWords –  There’s a bakery/coffee shop in SF that I really like that has a large communal table in it. I like that even if you don’t spend a lot of time interacting with others there, it is hard not to at least make eye contact and acknowledge them.@stepaside_loser –  This concept of the third place is something I’ve written about before, as Matt pointed out in his comment. Issues of community are often on my mind.

  14. @christao408 – Thanks for the clarification Chris. It’s funny but I’ve been trying to think of any coffee places in my town that have folk sitting with a laptop in front of them – and I can’t say I’ve seen even one ! We ‘did’ have a cafe very close to where I live that actually had an area set aside, complete with computers and charged people to go online, but that place has closed down now.

  15. I like the idea of third places, a term I was not familiar with before I read this post. I think that when I lived in my hometown, I had a third place. It was a local coffee shop. My hometown is not too big so I would often run into people that I knew.I’m now in a much bigger place and there seems to be a pervasive sentiment here that people are much to busy and involved in their own lives to give much life to these third places. It’s sad in a way.

  16. I didn’t even know there were such things as Third places. I don’t think I have one. It would be nice to though because it sounds rather homey without home But I’d have to choose something other than a coffee joint or a pub. Maybe a bakery lol

  17. @beowulf222 –  Interestingly, Nick, I had a conversation with a Singaporean couple who were in town this past weekend and they thought the concept of a third place was quite foreign to Asian cultures in general, certainly to Singaporean culture in particular. They complain that even if they are waiting for the lift in their flat and another resident arrives, sometimes the resident will just wait for the next lift instead of sharing the lift with someone they don’t know. Quite sad from my perspective.@NightlyDreams –  A bakery would get my vote! =D@TheCheshireGrins –  Certainly, the big city makes these places less frequent and means there will be fewer people whom you know. But sometimes I think our urban neighborhoods need these types of places even more, because even if we don’t know the other people, just a passing familiarity with them helps with issues of crime and security, not to mention the sense of being in some sort of a community in which you recognize people.@Chatamanda –  Interesting that the place didn’t stay in business… I guess it is a matter of location, location, location!@ElusiveWords –  I’d like that very much, Matt.

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