Every Saturday morning since we have lived here, Zach and I have gone out for breakfast at a little coffee shop just down the road a piece from our house. It’s a cute little place, with a cabin theme. Every Saturday, the owner and one of the two women who work there greet us, and, without even a question, bring us the same thing we always have. Coffee, caramel rolls and a croissant sandwich for Zach. Cream, but no sugar, for the coffee, and butter for the caramel roll. A group of older gentlemen, who also frequent the place every Saturday, greet us, and we ask each other about our respective weeks. We strike up a conversation with our servers about whatever is going on in our lives, and Zach and the owner, who owns a landscaping business, talk about the jobs they are working on now. I sit back and drink my coffee, listening to the sounds of the other patrons discussing the weather, and the crops, and the news from friends who are absent that day. Zach plays a crossword puzzle on his phone, pausing frequently to ask my advice on a clue.
When I was 15 years old, almost 16, I took a job at the coffee shop down the street from my house, Java Joes. It was that year that I started PSEO at the University of Minnesota, and, in an anthropology class, was assigned to read the book, The Great Good Place, by Ray Oldenburg. The book introduced me to the concept of the Third Place, at the same time that Java Joes was introducing me to it’s reality. A third place is a place outside of home and work, like a coffee shop, a bookstore, a hair salon or a pub, where people come together with regularity, to set aside the cares of daily life, and socialize. In the book Oldenburg argues, and I agree, that such places are a bedrock of healthy communities. The friendships made in these places are often lifelong. 25 years after I got the job at Java Joes, I still have friends that I made there. Working there exposed me to conversation with people of varying ages and walks of life, and gave me the opportunity, at a young age, to talk with them about everything that gives life value and meaning. In our modern world social media has taken up some of the functions of the third place, which I think is part of why it has become so wildly popular, but I don’t think it can completely replace it. There’s just something about the physical presence of the people and the shared experience that can’t be replicated online.
I can see the fruits of this kind of community building in my work with the elderly. The mere mention of the places that functioned as third places in this town when the residents were young brings smiles to their faces, and a flood of memories and questions about people they knew in common. The stories start to flow, and even without ever having been there, I feel like I’m an adopted member of the club.
I’ve felt a deep need for that kind of connection for a long time, and moving to a small town, with places like this, is finally filling that need. I owe a great deal of who I am today to the opportunities I had at Java Joes to share my thoughts, build relationships, sharpen my arguments by exposing them to real discussion, and sharpen my wit. I learned how to have real conversations and real friendships with people I didn’t always agree with, and how to be kind and respectful without losing my sense of identity. I can’t help but feel like the world could use more of that, these days.