coffee and writing part iv: let's get together yeah yeah yeah!

goto part iii

Starbucks Gossip's current post is about a Starbucks Marriage. Says the abstract,

"Arthur Odle and Rebecca Lightfoot would meet in the morning at Starbucks and get coffee each day before they went to work. The bride says: "When he proposed to me, it was at Starbucks. I didn't accept right away, but when I did, that was at Starbucks, too. I said jokingly that so much had happened here that we might as well get married here too. He laughed. I laughed, but then we thought about it."

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote a classic book, The Great Good Place, about how social connectivity develops in neighborhood coffee shops. His book is a great shambling mass of information and history of Great Good Places, what they have been, are, and are not. He is not a Starbucks fan, in fact, he seems to imply that any chain or franchise operation by its very nature mitigates against it becoming a third place. You'll have to read his book to see why, since listing all of his reasons is not really my point.

My point is to disagree with him, but only in a qualified way. I think he's right about Third Places (his coinage) in general. The problem is, and he does admit this, there are so few of them. And if you live in a town like Pottstown, PA that has no venue to develop into a third place and you lack for resources to create such a place as a going concern, you need to find one. Well, you could do without one, but why?

Human beings are wired for relationship. Some of us are introverted (very much so in my case), and require scads of time alone. Even so, without connection even us intorverts would die. This has been amply demonstrated by a number of people, but particularly by Robert Putnam in his breakthrough work Bowling Alone.

This is why I make the trip to Starbucks as much as I can. True, the people I see there are not ones I would even have a chance of meeting at home in Pottstown. And the interaction we have there is usually fleeting at best.

However, I've been going down there for a long time now and have gotten to know a fair number of the staff, as well as my fellow regulars. Some of those fleeting interactions have actually developed into deep friendships. Take my friend Matt for example. His wife worked at the Lionville Starbucks and Matt would come early in the morning before, plant himself in an overstuffed chair and study the scriptures. One day I asked him what he was looking at. That's all it took. He's now moved about as far away as he could and still be in the US, but for a while there he and I met every Monday morning. As we became fixtures, other customers would initiate brief conversations with us: Lou, a project manager for a cable company who came in (still does) each morning for his Venti Vanilla Iced Latte; Reba, a friend of Matt's from church; Noreen who owns ten acres of land (around here that's a plantation) and stops in to read before running errands all morning. A little community developed. Just by sitting around at Starbucks.

Sure, this could happen anywhere. If there was a place.


Eric said...

I wonder if "third places" develop and flourish on the sole basis of the personalities of the people who frequent them? Your simple question of Matt is a prime example. All it takes is for one person to initiate a social "feeler" and a network of sorts can take root.

It's one thing to go to a place where you routinely see the same faces. It's quite another thing when those faces smile and speak to one another. What's the tipping point (if there is such a thing) that creates the latter from the former?

It's a fascinating social construct, whatever the cause.

Jim said...

I think you're right about the personality hypothesis. I would expand it to include the people who work in the aspiring Third Place as well. I'll probably write a post about this sometime (relatively) soon.

I also have some ideas about the tipping point, and if I ever finish writing this book AND find a publisher, you'll have the opportunity to laugh yourself silly reading about it. In the meantime I'll say that there is a spiritual dimension to it. Though, some might prefer to speak of it as a "philosophical orientation" or something like that.