Third Places and Consumerism

Tim and I went on a little roadtrip this weekend, down to Ohio. I was inspired by a blog I read to investigate and then download TEDtalk audio podcasts to play in our car. We ended up listening to one about retrofitting suburbia. It was a really interesting talk, and she mentioned that there are many ways to make suburbia more inhabitable, more walkable, more appealing to the younger generations, including the Millennial Generation which is growing up and buying houses and finding entry-level jobs and career paths right now.

She introduced a concept of a “third place.” A first place is your home. A second place is your place of work. A third place is where the community gathers.

This morning, Tim went into work early, as he often does on Wednesdays. He tried to call me and text me to help me wake up, but the ringer on my phone was turned down too far. When I finally woke up, I read some less-than-appealing pronouncement on facebook (sleepy minds are impressionable), and grumped through my morning routine. As I headed out the door, I was struck by a craving for a grande awake tea latte from Starbucks.

In my car, I debated with myself. What is the purpose of this purchase in 10 minutes? Well, I would have a tasty hot beverage. What is the purpose of this purchase in 10 months? 10 years? In both cases, the money would just be gone. I turned left, heading both towards the Starbucks and my freeway on-ramp.

Sitting at the light where I would make the decision between going straight to work and going to Starbucks, I realized that what I was really craving from a trip to Starbucks was interaction with the Barista, someone positive in my day, a conversation.

That was a craving that I could honor without reservation.

I went to the Starbucks, where I had a very nice conversation with Dory, who is the older woman who works in the mornings. She recognizes me, and she knows my favorite drink, and how to make it just right. She asked on this Wednesday morning, what my husband and I were going to be doing with our weekend. I told her about our decluttering project, and she was supportive and impressed. I thanked her for my tea latte, she wished me luck with our project, and I went on my way.

Starbucks, more specifically the Starbucks inside of Target, in Fenton, Michigan, has become a third place for me. I’m a regular there; they great me with recognition, they ask about me, they ask about my husband, they tell me if their day is going good or bad. There are four or five Baristas, and they all seem to recognize me and my order.

My friend Patti pointed out to me that Starbucks explicitly builds its marketing scheme about being the third place in a community, and that they’re clearly succeeding because many people agree with me. I would prefer that my third place wasn’t a Starbucks, but was rather a local coffee shop, but where I live right now doesn’t have that kind of commerce.  Some day, we’ll get to move, and we’ll see out those local businesses; those will become third places, above the local Starbucks.

As for right now, it’s a start. It’s not exactly what I am looking for in a “third place” — it’s not in walking distance, it is not exactly cheap. But I think it’s revelatory that sometimes I realize that what I really want is not so much the coffee, as it is the conversation. It also helps me resist Starbucks as a whole — there is only one Starbucks where they know my order, and it is only in my town.

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