The Third Place

A friend recently pointed out that the cafes I spend so much time in function as the ‘third place’. He named something I have long believed in, but never had language for.

In community building terms, the third place is a social setting that is neither the home (the first place) or work (the second place). As an extroverted introvert, or a rather social writer, cafés are the place I feel I can spend time alone in community.

The third place is a home of civic engagement. It’s a place that is neutral – the one thing holding its patrons together is a desire to drink coffee in the same building. (I also have many thoughts on the role of public institutions or free places of being, like libraries, but I will go with the café as the third place for now).

According to Ray Oldenberg’s book The Great Good Place, there are a number of hallmarks that make up the third place: it is free or inexpensive; has food and drink; is highly accessible; involve regulars; is welcoming and comfortable; and old and new friends can be found there.

These are the hallmarks which make up a pub, probably, but I still feel that pub tradition is still very male-dominated. And one of the biggest draw factors of the café as the third place is that it is a place of ideas. It is not uncommon to read the newspaper there. In fact, most people read there, if not invested in conversation. You are allowed to write. It is not uncommon to journal. You can do solitary activities in a public space. And you can talk about your solitary activities in the third place – this is where the germination of ideas occurs.

The third place involves regulars, and that is crucial to a sense of place and community building. The incidental bump-ins are key to building up connection. Its the part of village life that I feel we were always meant to live. But in an individualistic society, dominated by sprawling suburbs and car-dominated cities, we’ve been stripped of the ability to connect.

The café suddenly functions as the third place. And my favourite mornings are spent there. I will arrive early to journal, read, then see a friend. I will be most excited when my activities are interrupted by regulars or old and new friends who have spontaneously visited. The café becomes my extended lounge room where I host people, where I bump into people I didn’t expect. And I love it.

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