I was searching for books on “bookstores” online – yes, any literature on the cultural and social value of bookstores – when I discovered a title called The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, originally published in 1989 by the American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg (born 1932).
Oldenburg is famous for his concept of “third places”, which he believes are central to local democracy and community vitality. What are third places? They are “informal public gathering” areas – where people simply hang out for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation. The house is the “first” place, office the “second”. Third places – beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices – host the regular, voluntary, happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.
Here, one finds relief from the confining over-familiarity of their permanent residences and cubicles.
Separated from the “domestic” and “productive” areas of life, the third place is a remedy for stress, loneliness and alienation. It provides an easy and much-needed escape. But that is not all. The third place also fulfills our deep-rooted need for communion and concretely promotes equality. By its very nature, it is an inclusive zone. It is the great leveler that topples hierarchies.
Furthermore, the third place acts as neutral ground. Oldenburg explains:
In order for the city and its neighborhoods to offer the rich and varied association that is their promise and potential, there must be neutral ground upon which people may gather. There must be places where individuals may come and go as they please, in which no one is required to play host, and in which we all feel at home and comfortable.
Of course, the need for communion is/has always been served by places of worship – as well – and their value cannot be ignored. But churches, temples and mosques now and then do fail to reach out to, invite or make an impression on the totality of the surrounding society. That’s when third places like cafes seriously perform a positive complementary role.
Interestingly, Ray Oldenburg’s book inspired dozens and dozens of entrepreneurs all over America. In 2002, he edited a volume of such endeavours called Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities.
In response to the original book, several “third places” were created or resurrected. The set of stories includes: “a shopping center in Seattle, a three-hundred-year-old tavern in Washington, D.C., a garden shop in Amherst, Massachusetts, a coffeehouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, a bookstore in Traverse City, Michigan, and a restaurant in San Francisco.”
Here is a good video of Ray Oldenburg from the University of West Florida Libraries: