If you’re already a fan of Third Place Books in Bothell, you owe it to yourself to read urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, the book that originated the idea of a Third Place. “The Third Place,” is Oldenburg’s term for the social realm that is neither work, nor home. It’s a comfortable and welcoming place where people come and go freely, and neighbors may meet up by chance, chat about local concerns, share a bit of conviviality and exchange ideas, or resources. Third place can take many forms – a local bar (where everybody knows your name, perhaps?) or pub, a European café, a coffee shop counter or even, once upon a time, a drugstore counter, a neighborhood barber shop or beauty parlor. Whatever form they take, third places knit physical neighborhoods into vibrant, robust communities, and foster lifelong friendships among neighbors. But beyond their clear social benefits, third places have historically played crucial roles in the formation of political and social movements. Just as the Enlightenment can be fairly said to have been born over a cup of coffee and a pipeful of tobacco in the coffee houses of England, the seeds of the American and French revolutions germinated in colonial taverns and French cafés.
As Oldenburg makes clear, the third place is under threat in America. Centralized urban planning and the rise of suburban monocultures are erasing the spaces where America’s third places once flourished, to the impoverishment of our personal social lives, and worse, our civic life as a nation. Reading this book is a crucial first step in protecting and preserving third places as an invaluable resource to ourselves and our posterity. And if you’re not already a fan of Third Place Books, maybe do yourself a favor and check that out, too. It’s a convivial place to have a meal, hear a lecture, buy a book, or who knows, maybe make a new friend.
Ulrika O’Brien is a Swede by birth, a philosopher by training, and a dilettante by temperament. When not wrangling sociologists she can often be found sketching strangers’ portraits on public transit or learning a new language for the heck of it.