In the Northwest, coffee shops have evolved from pit stops for professionals in need of a morning caffeine jolt to central gathering spaces that welcome relaxation and community. But will these coffee communities last?
It’s eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning and the Washburne Café in Springfield, Oregon, is awake.
The bell on the front door dings as customers enter to join the handful of people already sitting at wooden tables and plush sofas, immersed in their conversations or buried in their newspapers. Parents discuss politics over their now-tepid coffees as children run around waitresses who cart plates brimming with breakfast burritos and fresh fruit. Voices blend together in an unintelligible hum that makes the clinking of silverware and sputtering of cars outside almost imperceptible.
Nestled between a hair salon and a fabric shop on Main Street, the Washburne Café is where business executives, hipsters, and grandparents meet. It’s where people escape from their homes or workplaces to relax with a cup of coffee and take a break from the outside world. It’s also a prime example of what sociologists call “the third place.”
“I always say that we’re selling an experience, not necessarily coffee.”
-Sue Harnley, Eugene Coffee Company owner
In 1989, Ray Oldenburg coined the term “the third place” to mean an informal meeting space where communities gather and interact. The term originates from the theory that the home serves as an individual’s “first place,” and the office a “second place.” Third places are described as a home away from home, a hub that provides a comfortable environment for people to think, unwind, and interact with like-minded individuals.
“Through a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends,” Oldenberg wrote in his best-selling book, The Great Good Place. “Here joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation.”
Despite the recent popularization of the term, the concept of the third place isn’t new. Public gathering spaces have long served as breeding grounds for political participation, civic engagement, and literary inspiration.
In the 1800s, amidst the abolition of slavery, organizers of the Underground Railroad used barbershops and saloons as congregation centers for the black community. Later in the 1900s, diners emerged as third places for inexpensive outings during the Great Depression. Today, coffee shops have attracted a plethora of public figures, including Malcolm Gladwell and J.K. Rowling, authors who each wrote bestsellers at café tables, scrawling on loose-leaf paper or the corners of napkins. People seem to feel a need to find gathering spaces that are distinct from their offices or homes.
“Homeliness is the ‘protective coloration’ of many third places . . . [they do] not have that shiny bright appearance of the franchise establishment.”
—Oldenberg in his novel The Great Good Place
Coffee shops have become popular during recent years as shop owners attempt to establish a sense of “homeliness,” especially in areas that have a large coffee culture already. Several cafés in Portland have employed distinctive interior design techniques to promote community gathering. Specialty coffee company Ristretto Roasters received national attention in 2011 for the decorative flair at its NW Nicolai location. Owner Din Johnson partnered with Bamboo Revolution, an architecture firm, to design a coffee house inside the showroom of a high-end lighting business, School House Electric and Supply Co. Here, Johnson hand-selected a variety of custom lighting fixtures to illuminate the building, including a set of lamps once used in mine shafts.
The popular result of Johnson’s meticulous work at Ristretto is a spacious café with lofty ceilings and an explosion of bamboo trim, tables, and shelving. A floor-to-ceiling photo of Portland’s St. Johns Bridge occupies one of the white walls, illuminated by the sunlight seeping in through large bay windows. Past wrought iron gates, the shop transitions seamlessly into the School House Electric showroom, where customers sit in upholstered chairs next to smooth mahogany tables that look more like they belong in a Pottery Barn catalog than a coffee shop.
“I think people can afford a $3 pleasure. They can’t afford the big screen TVs or the fancy vacations, but people are going to afford themselves that little bit of comfort, that little bit of routine at a time when things seem so crazy.”
“Din built this up to be a really fancy example of coffeehouses to showcase what we can do,” barista Ben Schultz says. “This [location] is not so much about the community. We are more of a destination for most people.”
Although Ristretto sees its fair share of regular customers, many first-time visitors flock to this coffeehouse to sip their carefully decorated lattes, listen to indie music playing over the speakers, and bask in the overall ambiance of the shop.
A Home Away from Home
“Those who, on the outside, command deference and attention by the sheer weight of their position find themselves in the third place enjoined, embraced, accepted, and enjoyed where conventional status counts for little.”
“I always say that we’re selling an experience, not necessarily coffee,” says Sue Harnly, owner of Eugene Coffee Company, a small brew shop located in Eugene, Oregon.
Harnly bought the Eugene Coffee Company in 2008 and has since introduced a wide variety of event offerings, including a silent coffee hour for the hearing impaired, women’s poker night, and barista training for high schoolers, making the shop the heart of the community for many West Eugene residents.
“There are so many places in this town where you can get coffee, but there are not so many places where you can have a known connection with people,” Harnly says. “So that’s what I think keeps bringing people back.”
Neal Connor, one of the many regular patrons at Eugene Coffee Company, comes to the coffee shop every morning to work on his novel. He orders the same drink each day (his “poison,” or four shots of espresso), which is served in his personal, brown-speckled ceramic mug by one of the many baristas that know him by name.
As a recovered alcoholic, Connor uses his time at the Eugene Coffee Company to stay organized and productive. He says his third place used to be bars, but since embracing sobriety, he has switched to coffee shops.
“The Eugene Coffee Company has become sort of my extended family, which is great since I live alone,” Connor says as he cradles his steaming mug. “Going to coffee shops becomes a big part of your life when you’ve graduated from a drunken lifestyle.”
A Sense of Togetherness
“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community.”
Third places have attracted a diversity of community members, but retirees in particular compose a significant portion of coffee shop patrons. According to the National Coffee Association, adults aged 55-64 are 28 percent more likely to purchase coffee away from home than younger generations. Whether it’s for exercise or social stimulation, seniors seem to believe in the importance of frequenting cafés and becoming involved in the local community.
Retiree Phyllis Kesner is one of the Washburne’s many regular customers. She’s been coming to the coffee shop for years due to its convenient location.
“I live alone, so I grab opportunities to talk to people,” Kesner says. And she’ll talk about anything—her two tortoises, her favorite operas, and that time in high school when she held the door open for Eleanor Roosevelt. “You can often get into a conversation at a café. . . Somehow the permission is there.”
Beverly Kjellander, 60, also visits the Washburne to socialize and meet with friends. Ever since the café opened, she’s been coming twice a week for her usual decaf, non-fat, no foam, extra-hot latte, and over the years she has grown alongside the coffee shop.
“The staff knows me well enough that I don’t have to tell them what I drink,” Kjellander says. “It feels much like the Cheers of coffee shops for me.”
She’s become so well-known at the café that she was even given a special pastry with a candle on it for her birthday, and if she calls ahead, the baristas save her a piece of strawberry shortcake or pie.
“If you live alone, it is a good thing to ‘get out amongst ’em,’” Kjellander says. “Coffee shops can be a very non-threatening place to go.”
Here to Stay?
“Third places are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”
Regular customers like Kjellander and Kesner are a fading breed among coffee shop clientele. According to research conducted by the National Coffee Association in 2010, 86 percent of coffee drinkers prepare their coffee at home and the rate is rising. While 66 percent of adults purchased their coffee away from home in 2003, the recession has since cut that number in half. Now, only 30 percent of adults get their caffeine buzz outside of the home.
“You can often get into a conversation at a café. Somehow the permission is there.”
-Phyllis Kesner, Washburne Cafe regular
Despite a lull in business, Harnly of Eugene Coffee Company is optimistic about the future of coffee shops, and her café in particular.
“I think people can afford a $3 pleasure. They can’t afford the big screen TVs or the fancy vacations,” Harnly says. “But people are going to afford themselves that little bit of comfort, that little bit of routine at a time when things seem so crazy.”
With his own struggling business, customer Neal Connor’s income has been suffering—making his daily coffee a much greater financial sacrifice. Yet, he still finds room in his tight budget for his daily visits to the Eugene Coffee Company.
“In the last two years, I really haven’t gotten out of debt, but I have to have my coffee,” Connor says. “There are a couple of basic needs we have. I mean, why do you keep eating every day? Why do you breathe?”
Despite empty wallets and full schedules, frequent customers like those at the Washburne and Eugene Coffee Company offer at least some proof that coffee shops have continued to serve as cornerstones of community. They are where couples have their first dates, where employees go before starting their workdays, and where regulars find a sense of family. Coffee is no longer just a staple of the working person’s diet, but a vessel for conversation and a liquid confidence for the lonely.
“Even if you are not involved in the chatter, there is something comforting about being around that sound of people talking and laughing,” Beverly Kjellander says. “Along with the coffee, it gives you a warm feeling. . . a feeling that you belong.”