I’ve written a lot about this before (e.g., here: The Third Place), but it’s worth saying again: “Third places” are key to community. A third place is a neutral public or semi-public place, not home or work/school, where no one is guest or host. It’s inclusive and multigenerational (no membership, no status), accessible and accommodating in time and space, come-as-you-are, allows and fosters conversation (and possibly other activities), has a light or playful mood, and feels like a home-away-from-home.
In The Great Good Place, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes third places as “informal public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact.” They are places where we can just enjoy company and conversation.
A third place nourishes a diversity of human relationships, helps foster a sense of place and community, evokes a sense of civic pride, provides chances for serendipity, promotes companionship, is socially binding, and encourages sociability instead of isolation. Third places are the bedrock of community life and all the benefits that come from such interaction.
The locally owned coffee shop shown in the photo above, Café Crème, opened in a small Maine town in 2004 and flourishes today. It’s a vibrant, life-enhancing third place. It’s open from 7:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night, six days a week, and from 8:30-5:30 on Sunday. It showcases local art, offers opportunities for musicians to perform, provides a bulletin board for community notices and a selection of books and magazines for anyone who wants to read, has ‘theme’ days — Pirate Day, Vacation, the 1970s, Superheroes, Hawaiian-Tropical, Prom, Hollywood, etc. — with lavish decor and costumes (patrons are encouraged to donate decorative items and dress up, too), and sells many locally made items.
One of the essentials of a successful third place is that it be free or quite inexpensive to enter and purchase food and drink. At Café Crème, most customers buy a drink (from $1.50 or so and up), or a drink and a food item, and linger in the café for a half-hour, or an hour, or two; this is exactly what the owner envisioned, a place where “you could meet people … and talk and hang out. That’s what was lacking in [this town]. A place where friends could sit and talk without being rushed.”
I hung out there several days a week, meeting friends usually, and enjoying the parents with babies, the business meetings, the tourists, the regulars who sat and chatted around me. I miss it now that we have moved. There is a locally owned coffee shop in this town, too, and I’m glad it’s here, but it lacks the playful mood, the cozy couches, and that certain je ne sais quoi that makes Café Crème the excellent third place that it is.