The Third Place

“Conversation is a crucial thing in Spanish culture. Writers, artists, poets and philosophers, intellectuals in general used to join ever day at the cafes to talk around a drink about the human and the divine and to try and arrange the problems of the world. This habit is called tertulia. German philosophers used to think first then write. Spanish philosophers use to talk, and then, if it works, to write. For the Spanish, talk is a form of thinking.”

Imagine a place where you went each day to chat with your friends, to write, or simply get away from everything and spend a quiet afternoon reading or brooding.

In his book The Great Good Place: Café’s Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day, Ray Oldenburg refers to these settings as Third Places, informal gathering places away from a person’s home and place of work. He discusses the German beer gardens, the English pubs, French cafes and the American tavern.

“In cities blessed with their own characteristic form of these Great Good Places, the stranger feels at home—nay, is at home—whereas in cities without them, even the native does not feel at home.”

He says informal gathering places are largely absent from the countless suburban communities in this country now. Oldenburg suggests that where the citizens of a country have no place to spend time outside their home or place of work, something profoundly important is missing from their life. This is the problem of place in America.

What many people in both suburbia and metropolitan areas are missing are places to gather whenever they want, as often as they want, nearby and easily accessible that are “real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile.”

We often hear about how deficient American life has become, how people are distressed at the quality of their lives and how so many need to seek assistance to get their act together. Oldenburg attributes part of this general malaise to the inability to participate in the pleasures of these informal gathering places.

In contrast, the French, he says, have solved the problem of place. There are usually several coffeehouses in each of the neighborhoods of any French city. It is easy to walk there and many go to the same place at the same time each day so they can count on the regulars being there.

The Parisian café is legendary as a place for writing letters, books, or simply studying. Around the Sorbonne or any city in France near a university students gather at all hours of the day to discuss the work they are doing and the latest cultural movement. Susan Sontag wrote, “After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a café looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendezvous …One should go to several cafes—average: four in an evening.”

According to Oldenburg there are several fundamental characteristics of these settings.

• Everyone is considered an equal.
• Conversation is the main activity.
• The “regulars” can be counted on to be there.
• The mood is both playful and serious.
• It feels like a home away from home.

In addition, the traditional third places are fundamentally settings for friendship and companionship. The need for such settings can hardly be denied even for those who enjoy their times of solitude that are paradoxically sometimes spent in a café. A contemporary regular said, “There’s a recognition here that people come to a café to not be alone”