Third Places

I’m typing these words in a Starbucks store. It’s Sunday, and I’ve come here to work on my book. For the price of a cup of coffee, I have access to an environment that allows me to focus for a few hours. There are other people here; some are working on computers as I am, some are reading the newspaper, others are just chatting. Starbucks offers us all a place to sit for a while to do our own thing. The coffee is not bad, either. It’s a great deal.

This is by design. The Starbucks website explains the company’s origin story thus:

In 1983, [Starbucks founder Howard Schultz] traveled to Italy and became captivated with Italian coffee bars and the romance of the coffee experience. He had a vision to bring the Italian coffeehouse tradition back to the United States. A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home… From the beginning, Starbucks set out to be a different kind of company. One that not only celebrated coffee and the rich tradition, but that also brought a feeling of connection.

The concept of the third place was coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg. In his book The Great Good Place, Oldenburg pointed out that important aspects of our lives happen in three “places”: home (“first place”), work (“second place”), and venues such as corner stores, coffee shops, and parks. These “third places” are where we socialize, play, and catch up with each other and the world. They’re important to healthy civil societies. Starbucks and its competitors aim to fulfill this role; the number of people in this store and others like it is a testament to the strategy’s success.

At a time when so much of our communications happens online, it feels good to be in a roomful of people — some neighbors, some strangers — of varying ages, races, backgrounds, etc. All of us are doing our own thing, but also enjoying each other’s company. We exchange small courtesies; we exercise our civility. The coffee is a small price to pay for an important social need — especially when you consider the currency we’re paying with on the online social networks: our attention and personal information.