29 Jun

Starbucks got it right: Their “Third Place” works for me

A “Third Place”

When Howard Schultz was building the Starbucks brand, he wanted each location to be “a third place between work and home”.  To this day, I tend to spend lots of time socializing, reading, working, and drinking chai lattes in one particular Starbucks location. This one is the most comfortable coffee shop among the several I have to choose from in the urban village that I like to call home.  To be clear, not every Starbucks is designed and arranged the way this location is – spacious, warmly lit, comfy seating, and friendly.  But there are many locations, like this one, that live up to Howard’s vision and desire for Starbucks to be part of the communities they operate in – a “Third Place”.

Why a “Third Place”?

Every generation needs a place to be.  Not home, which is safe and nurtures who we are,  and not work which defines other feelings, such as labeling what we do. A third place, then, is a place where we can be in community with others, express ourselves, and transition between work and home so as to not bring one into the other.

“I want to go where everyone knows my name!”

(Cheers:  TV – 1982-1993))

“No one drinks anymore!” When I heard this statement , it startled me.  To the 50-something year old person who spoke it, local bars, taverns, and pubs were their Third Place.  When I was young the television show called Cheers was all the rage, beloved by many. In this sitcom, a group of people make a pub in Boston, MA their place to be.  For some reason, the show Cheers never really resonated with me.  To this day, I don’t really drink much alcohol and don’t associate it as a social connector between myself and others. I don’t have any particular beliefs or judgements around alcohol, to be clear.  Alcohol, and establishments that make it central to the experience, are simply not my Third Place.

The Club

“We are going to the [yacht/tennis/golf/curling or whatever] club.”  If you have a specific  activity, belief, or passion that you want to identify with, and want to spend time with others who like the same thing, these clubs are for you.  Once you are “in”, you feel like you belong and can “be” there. Wonderful! I am happy that people can find these feelings from such clubs. But while I do many activities, I don’t really identify myself with any one activity. I am not “a golfer”, for example.  In one startling experience, a checkout person at a department store stated to me “You are not a shopper, are you?” when I declined joining the store’s “points club”.  No, I am not a “shopper”.

The Library?

The venerable library, once quite a comfortable place to be for young and old  alike, is now an often uncertain mix of internet access terminals, videos, study space, and what feels like oddly outdated books.  It is a place to hang out during the day for people in transition,  the homeless and semi-homeless, and an eclectic mix of others who are not engaged in  a daily 9-5 job.  Can you “be” there? Sure. Many people make it their place to be, and the diverse mix of folks in a library make it an interesting place to observe human behavior.  But you are watched. Carefully. The central branch that I use has a security guard posted strategically so that you won’t steal videos.  And in the end, a library still feels like a library.  Despite having visited dozens of libraries around the world, I have only ever found one that didn’t feel like a library, but felt rather like a community “place to be”.  It was in Ohio.  I don’t live in Ohio.

Ahhh…the Community Center, of course!

What about public community centers? Well, some are really sports clubs. Others are places where seniors hang out and hobby courses are run in the evenings. Some, a rare few, actually have nice space to hang out – places you can “be” without paying to get in. Open lounges, couches,  activity rooms that don’t have to booked and paid for – you can simply use them. Nice.  I don’t have access to one of those kinds of community centers where I live.

A new realm

Young people have found a new place to be.  It is called “online”.  I have observed that they can be in your living room, but not “be” there with you. They are elsewhere mentally, socially, and in spirit.  The first time I experienced this in an extreme form, it stopped me in my tracks. A young person, who was visiting my son for a couple of weeks, was in my living room alone and in the dark.  This person was doing something on their laptop, with earbuds in place.

Said to me in a startled fashion when I said hello upon entering the living room:

“Oh, sorry. I am watching a movie with a friend in Toronto.”

In response to my utterly confused look they hastened to add:

“On this site we both watch the movie and we [text] chat with each other on the same screen.  It is like we are in the same room.”

The eyes went back to the laptop, the fingers continued chatting. I ceased to exist to them.  I stood there for a minute.  I felt like a stranger in my own living room.  Then I left the dark room, not quite knowing what to do there if I stayed.  In the time that followed during their visit I observed that rarely a live, in-person contact took place between them and myself.  However, online interaction seldom ceased, day and night. And it was not that there was any problem between us – it was simply that I didn’t exist in their reality. I was a ghost, floating in and out of their experience and occasionally startling them from their online interactions by speaking at them in-person.  And this, despite the fact they were physically in my home for an extended period of time.

The “connected young” make a significant part of of their life online.  In the extreme it seems the physical world is only a distraction from their “real” life online.  And while I find the online world enjoyable and useful, I don’t live there. It is wonderful to connect and chat online or by text message at times, but then the technology gets put down and I continue what I feel is my “real” life, in the flesh.

So, where can I “be”?

I am not a drinker. I don’t define myself by any particular activity or belief system. I do not see the current form of the library as a place I can be.  And I am not a senior who uses community centers – and won’t be for a long time.  I don’t live my life online.

So it has been Starbucks for me.  And it has worked pretty well.

A new place!

Today I visited a co-working space. Google the term “co-working” if you haven’t heard of what it is. This co-working space is a very cool place to work, hang out with independent peeps like yourself, and really feel comfortable in.  It has a coffee lounge complete with couches,  “hot desk” areas to work with your laptop, bike storage, lockers, meeting rooms, and more.  You pay for your time being in the co-working space, but unlike a commercial transaction, you pay a form of rent by the day or month that covers the cost of the communal space.  So you feel more like a citizen than a customer.  It is another place to “be” for people like me. Oh, and this co-working space is called The Hive.  As in “bee hive”.   Or “be” hive!  Delightful.

Now I have two “Third Places” I can be in. My favourite Starbucks, and a local co-working space similar to The Hive that I found the next day.

My lifestyle is getting richer.

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