Third Places: A Meditation on Coffee Culture and the way Spaces Shape us

Photo By: Allen Kent Photography

A few years ago while working at an independent coffee shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I first came across the concept of third places.  This term, originally coined by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg, identifies “third places” as the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. The phrase ‘third places’ derives from considering our homes to be the ‘first’ places in our lives, and our workplaces the ‘second.’ In his book, The Great Good Place (1991), Oldenburg defines third places as environments such as churches, cafes, clubs, public libraries, or parks. In his writing, he contends that “the beauty of third places, or 3rd spaces, is that they are other than the structured areas of our lives that are dictated by certain norms and dynamics.”

I’ve been in frequent reflection over the course of this last month as we have been patiently and excitedly awaiting the ability to move into our new coffee shop/house in Elk Rapids. As I continue to mine the past, and how it has informed the present moment, I am continually reminded of the concept of third places, and the discovery of a very memorable third place I chanced upon back in my youth.

I was 13 years old with a shaved head wearing tall black combat boots, when I first wandered into Caffe Venezia in downtown East Lansing one summer afternoon in 1996. The scene still stands vividly in my mind today nearly 22 years later: the exhilaration I felt walking through the vestibule into the strange new landscape of a bustling independent coffee shop. The air was redolent of many lit cigarettes and fresh brewed coffee, and sunlight danced ethereally in the smokiness of the otherwise dim room as it streamed forth through the large storefront window.  In a chaotic labyrinth of tables and chairs, gathered fascinating a mix of Gen X intellectuals, gothic philosophers, and colorful haired youngsters. People not much older than me—with piercings in their faces—played deeply engaged games of chess with local eccentrics, whilst clean-cut MSU students hunched over textbooks catching up on their studies.

The environment, which I can now identify as my first chosen third place, activated something deep within me. The sensory experience tickled part of my adolescent brain, which was just starting to enter into a rebellious coming of age phase, as I angrily tried to make sense of the world around me. Looking back now, I realize that my experiences shared in this space served as a fulcrum point between childhood and adulthood. The coffee shops in my home town were the places where I took my first awkward steps on a quest to find my identity, as well as a sense of personal autonomy and place in the world.  

When I was 17, I got my first job working in coffee at the Spotted Dog Cafe in downtown Lansing. I quickly became smitten with the work. It was a place where I felt I could be myself. I could wear the clothes I wanted—within reason—and I began to treasure the relationships I formed with the regulars getting their morning coffee or enjoying a freshly prepared meal on their lunch break. I relished learning the particulars of someone’s “usual” drink order and preparing it exactly to their liking. I loved flipping over the closed sign at the end of service, cranking up the music, and closing down the shop in preparation for the next day’s business. The cafe was owned by two extremely rad women named, Cher and Carol, AKA “the Ladies”, who served as stellar role models for me in terms of observing firsthand what it looks like to pursue your passion and consistently put in the necessary work to keep a small business running day after day.

Like Oldenburg, and many others who subscribe to the power and importance of public places in our society, It is my belief that 3rd places can be integral spaces for individuals to gather and be amongst close friends, neighbors, and quirky acquaintances. This belief informs our  inspiration to create a cosmic coffee house where music, art and ideas can thrive. A place where people of diverse interests and backgrounds can relax, create dialogue and feel at home in a cozy, welcoming, and inclusive environment. I believe places like these can serve as a communal sanctuary, which might be a rather lofty vision, but I don’t really think any particular harm can come from a lofty vision, so long as the basis of one comes from a place of intention to share goodness and caring. 

Thanks for reading, and feel free to reach out with any questions or interest in booking a future event with Planetary Coffee. From our hearts to yours, we wish everyone a joyful and peaceful holiday season, and an uplifting new year ahead. Cheers!


For more about Ray Oldenburg and more thoughtful musings on third places and mindfully shaping the public sphere visit the Project for Public Spaces website. Please check out our previous blog about our future Elk Rapids location, and keep up to date with the progress as we build out our new space via social media!