Celebrating the Third Place

Inspiring Stories About the Great Good Places at the Heart of Our Communities


Edited by Ray Oldenburg, PhD

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Nationwide, more and more entrepreneurs are committing themselves to creating and running “third places,” also known as “great good places.” In his landmark work, The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg identified, portrayed, and promoted those third places. Now, more than ten years after the original publication of that book, the time has come to celebrate the many third places that dot the American landscape and foster civic life. With 20 black-and-white photographs, Celebrating the Third Place brings together fifteen firsthand accounts by proprietors of third places, as well as appreciations by fans who have made spending time at these hangouts a regular part of their lives. Among the establishments profiled are a shopping center in Seattle, a three-hundred-year-old tavern in Washington, D.C., a garden shop in Amherst, Massachusetts, a coffeehouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, a bookstore in Traverse City, Michigan, and a restaurant in San Francisco.



The Great Good Place

“The great value of this book is that Mr. Oldenburg has given us an insightful and extremely useful new lens through which to look at a familiar problem.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Well-written, informative, and often entertaining.”
Newark Star-Ledger

“Examines gathering places and reminds us how important they are. People need the ‘third place’ to nourish sociability.”

“Oldenburg believes that the powerful need in humans to associate with one another will inevitably lead to the revival of places where, as the theme song to the TV show Cheers so aptly put it, ‘everyone knows your name.’ We’ll drink to that.”

“A book that should be read by everyone in North America over the age of 16.”
The World of Beer

“ ‘The Great Good Place’ by Ray Oldenburg is a treatise on the ‘third places’ in our lives . . . he makes so much sense. He describes ways to gather back our sense of community.”
The Virginian-Pilot

“In his book, Oldenburg . . . captures the essence of a true coffeehouse based on the sidewalk cafes of Paris, English pubs, Viennese coffeehouses, German bier gartens, Japanese teahouses and America’s main street.”
Specialty Coffee Retailer Magazine


Celebrating the Third Place

Ray Oldenburg, Ph.D.,
professor emeritus of sociology
at the University of West Florida,
coined the term “third place” and is
widely recognized as one of the world’s
leading advocates for great good places. His
book, The Great Good Place, a New York Times Book
Editor’s Choice for 1989, was reissued
in 1999. He is frequently sought after as a
media commentator and consultant to
entrepreneurs and community and
urban planners. He lives in
Pensacola, Florida.



the Third Place

Inspiring Stories About the
“Great Good Places”
at the Heart of Our


to Roberta Brandes Gratz

Celebrating the Third Place


a  young lady’s father sits at the big round table in the little diner taking his morning coffee just as he has almost every day for the past ten years. His friends are there with him. His daughter thinks it’s a wonderful place and was moved to tell me about it in writing. Among the many goings-on she described, the following best illustrates the reason for her admiration:

During my senior year; our band had been chosen to march in the Rose Bowl Parade. A friend of mine who was also a band member could not afford the nine hundred dollars required to make the trip. He was from a broken home, and was forced to live in a taxicab for three years and watch his mom snort cocaine. Having done drugs since the age of ten, this seventeen-year-old recovered addict presented an amazing story. He cleaned himself up on his own, and moved into the home of a drug counselor at school. He began going to church, participating in extracurricular activities, and tried to make up the academics he had avoided for so long. The drug counselor’s home was average-sized, but housed a family of six. There was barely room for my friend and absolutely no money. He slept on three couch cushions, which was a luxury compared to the taxi. With all the help this family had provided for him, there was just no way they could afford to finance his band trip. I expressed my concern to my father. The following morning, he spoke to his all-male coffee group about my friend. It only took a quarter of an hour to convince them. One pulled out a hundred-dollar bill and laid it on the table. Several followed his lead, laying hundreds, fifties, and twenties out on the round table. Within just a few minutes, there lay nine hundred dollars. My dad went to the school and deposited the money into my friend’s account. No one ever knew where the money came from. That’s the way they wanted it.

It is the kind of thing Tocqueville marveled at when he visited America in the 1830s, the capacity of Americans to do what needs doing without depending upon government. Essential to informal collective effort is the habit of association, and essential to informal association are places where people may gather freely and frequently and with relative ease.

That little diner is just such a place. It is what I call a “third place,” a setting beyond home and work (the “first” and “second” places respectively) in which people relax in good company and do so on a regular basis. Many Americans, though not nearly enough, still give allegiance to a place they visit before or after work and when home life permits. Some have coffee there before work. Some have a beer there after work. Some stop in for the Luncheon Special every Thursday. Some drop by whenever it’s convenient. It is their version of the once popular television series Cheers.

Such association is not as essential for good works as it once was. Our society, alas, has become much like Tocqueville’s homeland, in which governmental agencies are expected to do whatever needs doing. Yet what government does is done remotely and impersonally; its focus is on our weaknesses and dependencies and its policies define us accordingly.

We may not need third place association to build a town hall anymore, but we sorely need it to construct the infrastructures of human relationships. Ever since the solidifying effect of World War II passed into history, Americans have been growing further apart from one another. Lifestyles are increasingly privatized and competitive; residential areas are increasingly devoid of gathering places. To the extent of our affluence, we avoid public parks, public playgrounds, public schools, and public transportation.

Awareness of these trends and of the sharp decline in the number of third places in the United States prompted me to write The Great Good Place a decade ago. That volume details, illustrates, and analyzes informal public gathering places both here and abroad. It identifies their many social functions and their unique importance as focal points of community life. Now in its third edition, The Great Good Place has become basic reading among a growing number of groups encouraging revitalization of our urban areas and of public life.

That book and the publicity it received also brought me into contact with many people who own and operate third places or otherwise have intimate knowledge of them. It became obvious to me that these people have stories to tell that can take our understanding well beyond what I offered in the first book. It remained only to contact them requesting their participation.

Contributors were given free rein as to style, length, and format in the hope that these latitudes would allow them to bring their places to life in these pages. And so they have. Much, I think, will be accomplished by their efforts. There is a lot of how-to in these chapters and much that is inspirational. Some will find resolve to open a place or to remodel with a third place vision in mind. Still more will resolve to find a third place and the human connection it brings.

The collection as a whole should broaden the reader’s view of new possibilities for third place association. Earlier versions have faded, such as candy stores, soda fountains, gun shops, and male taverns. Coffeehouses and health spas are on the rise, but other versions are needed.

Importantly, these accounts will give the reader a fine sense of what constitutes the real thing. Developers build houses and call them “homes.” They build socially sterile subdivisions and call them “communities.” It’s called “warming the product.” It’s also happening with alleged third places. Officials of a popular coffeehouse chain often claim that their establishments are third places, but they aren’t. They may evolve into them but at present, they are high volume, fast turnover operations that present an institutional ambience at an intimate level. Seating is uncomfortable by design and customers in line are treated rudely when uncertain of their orders.

Visiting Celebration, Florida, my wife and I arrived at its version of a friendly diner three minutes late for breakfast and were told it couldn’t be served. “Three minutes,” I protested, “Are you certain we can’t have breakfast?” The man was quite certain. To my wife’s embarrassment, we left to find breakfast elsewhere. The “friendly diner” struck me as much a fake as the “Town Hall” across the street. The Disney people have their policies and small towns have their ways and ne’er the twain shall meet.

A popular restaurant chain locates its establishments along the more congested commercial strips but nonetheless insists that they are your “neighborhood” restaurants. Other restaurants, sometimes even in neon, claim to be “gathering places.” As Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley recently noted, “People are honestly trying to balance the frantic privacy of the suburbs with some kind of spontaneous public life.”1 One may expect to see increased pandering to this need with the result that third places may be marketed but not delivered.


Victories achieved as the result of a struggle against the odds and the odds have been increasingly stacked against third places since the end of World War II. The best third places are locally owned, independent, small-scale, steady-state business, and both government and incorporated chain operations have wreaked havoc upon them.

It is no coincidence that chains and unifunctional zoning emerged in tandem. Unifunctional zoning prohibits commercial establishments in residential areas such that Americans “have to get into the car for everything” and when they do, they drive to strips and malls where only the chains can afford to lease. Before unifunctional or negative zoning dictated land use, little stores, taverns, offices, and eateries were located within walking distance of most town and city dwellers and those places constituted “the stuff of community.”

Those small businesses typically drew most of their trade from within a two- or three-block radius and survived quite nicely. The chain operations could not have competed with them on their own terms. A “McBurger” on every block would not produce the volume and turnover such establishments require in order to flourish. Negative zoning thus set the stage such that these cloned and impersonal chains thrived, and they did so by killing off the independents.

The personnel and the policies that the chains bring to town are a far cry from what local independents offered. Many of the people who operated the mom-and-pop stores were “public characters,” as Jane Jacobs called them—people who knew everyone in the neighborhood and cared about them. Those folks kept an eye on the children, kept an eye on the neighborhood, and kept people informed on matters of mutual concern. In contrast, chain personnel turnover is high and “wasting time” with customers is discouraged. No matter how bad the weather, letting people in before the appointed minute is just as unthinkable as adjusting the menu to local tastes.

Successful third places are also harder to achieve because several decades of poor urban planning have encouraged people to stay at home. “Nesting” or “cocooning” are reported to be favored by increasing numbers of Americans. As the public sphere became more inhospitable and enervating to get around in, the private sphere improved. Homes are better equipped, more comfortable, and more entertaining than ever before. This domestic retreat presents a challenge to Traditional Town Planning or the New Urbanism, which purports to restore community and public life by offering a proven alternative to the anti-community tract housing that spread like a plague after World War II.

The New Urbanism incorporates principles of architecture and layout similar to those developed in the 1920s when we knew how to build communities and proceeded accordingly. But is the architectural remedy sufficient?

In a recent feature in Preservation Magazine, Alan Ehrenhalt focuses on a public square well located and designed to attract the townspeople—but it doesn’t.2 His account reminded me of an automobile trip I took a few years ago, during which I made stops at the Clock Tower Square in Marion, Illinois, “The Hill” in St. Louis, the town square in Bloomfield, Iowa, and a little town-within-a-town in East Superior, Wisconsin. All were the kinds of settings idealized in New Urbanist planning. All were visited during those first warm days of spring that used to draw people out like bears from hibernation. All of them, unfortunately, were also suitable places for rifle practice. Nobody was out and about.

The strong suggestion is that it will take more than front porches, reduced setbacks, and mixed use planning to re-create public life. Front porch use was popular before television and air-conditioning, but has not been popular since. And people have become even more reclusive since universal ownership of computers has become national policy.

I spoke with a man the other day who regularly walks his dogs around an expansive residential circle. Lately, he’s been seeing fewer of his neighbors and began asking what’s happened to them. The answer usually is that they’re on the Net, some playing the market, some in chat rooms, some spending countless hours playing FreeCell or solitaire.

This is not to suggest, however, that people won’t come out. It is to suggest that towns and cities that want life on the streets and a community spirit to prevail will have to take steps to promote it.

A good example is that of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which suffered years of economic stagnation and a devastating storm, and for which revitalization took concerted effort. Shortly before Harrisburg made its comeback, I gave a public lecture at the North Street Café and Trading Center and was informed that that third place had recently opened and had been given an award by Mayor Reed for contributing to the betterment of the city.

It was not the way city hall usually treats independent, start-up businesses. Typically, a parade of inspectors is better at harassing than helping, and if the business is successful there are not likely to be any official thank-you’s.

I have no doubt that the mayor’s hospitality toward new business reverberated in the hospitality the city now offers to all who live or visit there. Always a walkable city, its public sphere is now great fun to enter. Young Jim Maturani and Michael DeFazio, who opened on North Street, have since been joined by many others who bid welcome to those “on the town” or just seeking respite from daily routines. This medium-sized city hosts a public life that larger centers may well envy.

Harrisburg’s architecture confirms New Urbanist thinking and it was protected in the same manner as the French Quarter in New Orleans. Economic stagnation discouraged corporate expansionism and urban renewal, thus preserving an urban landscape built to human scale and made interesting by a fine-grained pattern of mixed land use. Its seventeen-square-mile downtown remains walkable and charming and all the more interesting lately because there are people around in numbers not seen in years. Harrisburg illustrates the dual need for an inviting physical setting and the efforts of people who know how to implement hospitality.

As a final comment on the victorious character of successful third places in America today, I remind the reader that we personally experience the difficulty in the loss of our free hour. Working adults formerly enjoyed an hour of “community time” after the workday was over and before they were expected home. It has been replaced by an hour of “commuting time.” The former warmed us to our fellow human beings, the latter conditions us to hate them.

Why did we lose our free hour? It all had to do with planners who focused on cars and their movement and forgot about people and how they live. Unlike European autobahns, our interstate highways were routed right through our cities such that local travelers found the roads congested by people who didn’t even want to be in town. Street systems were designed in such a way that most roads carry too little traffic while others carry too much. Unifunctional zoning encouraged urban sprawl such that not only do Americans have to drive everywhere they go but, their necessary destinations are farther away from home than are those of peoples in other countries are from their homes. Finally, the auto industry managed to kill the trolley systems and put forty vehicles on the road in place of the one vehicle that carried the same number of passengers. Road rage may be understandable, but it is directed at the wrong people.

It is no longer easy to establish a good third place, but those who manage to do so are, to that extent, all the more heroic in their efforts to hold on to community for the rest of us. This book is theirs and they speak to us from where they live and from what they hold dear in life.

Students build composting bins at Annie’s Gift and Garden Shop.

1. Katz, Bruce and Bradley, Jennifer. “Divided We Sprawl,” The Atlantic Monthly (December 1999): 42.

2. Ehrenhalt, Alan. “The Empty Square,” Preservation Magazine (March/April 2000): 42-51.

Annie’s Gift and Garden Shop


MOST THIRD places enjoy a location where pedestrian traffic is heavy and many regulars live but minutes away Annie’s, however; is located out in the rural countryside and the reader will learn how she cleverly lures people into her place and quickly convinces them that she is interested in much more than making money.

Raised in a small tobacco town in the South, Annie was deeply influenced by a small restaurant that served as the local gathering place. It was one of those wonderful spots in which “everybody knows your name” and cares about you. That little restaurant, Fred’s Place, embodied her dream of what to offer the public, even though her plant nursery differs sharply in both its offerings and location.

Like Lynne Breaux, whose story also appears in this collection, Annie Cheatham is a woman steeped in the traditions of southern hospitality and determined to bring it north. She has succeeded famously.

In the spring of my sophomore year at St. Mary’s College, I got pneumonia. St. Mary’s is a small Episcopal women’s college in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in 1961 the infirmary occupied an old house on the campus. Two nurses staffed the facility, and I was the only patient. I was unhappy there, didn’t get well, and after a week my parents took me home to the hospital. The doctor ordered glucose and antibiotics, and as soon as I was well enough to eat solid food, my parents asked what I wanted. “A hot dog from Fred’s,” I said. That night the second floor hall of the Johnston County Memorial Hospital reeked of Fred Adams’ chili sauce, and I was one meal closer to recovery

Fred’s Place was a small restaurant on Third Street next door to Creech’s Drugstore and Stallings’ Jewelry in Smithfield, a rural tobacco town. Fred’s was narrow and long, about fifteen by forty feet. It was poorly lit. A long bar stretched the length of the room. Small café tables lined the left wall. Fred worked alone behind the bar on the right.

Fred served hot dogs, sodas in glass bottles, potato chips, and fried pork rinds. He only bought quality wieners and steamed the buns until they were spongy and soft. His mustard and relish were spicy, but the chili sauce was what made his hot dogs special. It had ground beef in it, chili pepper, and tomato sauce—common ingredients in any cookbook recipe. But it had something else, a secret from Fred, and I never found out what that was. It was the best chili I have ever eaten on a hot dog.

Everybody ate at Fred’s at one time or another. Lawyers in suits arguing cases at the county courthouse slipped into Fred’s during the court’s lunchtime recess. Tobacco farmers in stained overalls ate at Fred’s. My father picked up a Fred’s hot dog whenever Creech’s called with a prescription or just before having his hair cut at the barbershop on the corner. In the hospital with pneumonia, I wanted a Fred’s hot dog because Fred’s meant home.

Bernice’s Beauty Parlor, Talton’s Grocery, the Fashion Shop, and other public places in my hometown of four thousand also meant home. They not only provided services we needed, they also provided a sense of community. Adults in these places knew me and they cared about me, not in an overbearing or intrusive way, but enough so I noticed. I wasn’t invisible. I had a name and people used it, sometimes to steer me back in the right direction. I’ve always been grateful for being known in that way. I liked the intimacy, and ever since then, I’ve looked for places that offer that kind of arm’s-length caring. I rarely find it. When I started Annie’s Garden and Gift Store, I was determined to create it.

I had to face the differences. Annie’s is not Fred’s or Creech’s, and Amherst, Massachusetts is not Smithfield. Annie’s is not even located in a downtown. The store sits on a six-acre parcel on a major state road, Route 116, at the edge of Amherst township. Small agricultural enterprises surround it—a fish farm, organic vegetable farm, and another, part-time, farmer who raises a dozen cattle a year. Annie’s uses two acres of the six; clover is planted on the rest and the cattle farmer cuts and bales it in June and October.

It is no longer the late 1940s and 1950s and Annie’s is not located in the rural South. Our customers are New Englanders, as friendly as southerners once you get to know them, but more reserved and reticent at first. They live in small communities scattered up and down the Connecticut River, each with its own town center. People are busier now than they were when I was growing up, and our customers don’t have the leisure time that my parents’ generation had.

But Annie’s did not emerge from a vacuum. And those early experiences in Smithfield informed me as I envisioned my new business. My business would be a place, like Fred’s, where people would be known. That is what I remembered about my hometown; that is what I longed for myself. But it would be more than that. Because I am a teacher, it would be a place where people learned, became more competent and proficient. Because I am a student of religions and spirituality, it would be a place of beauty and rest, a sacred place in a busy world. Because I am a writer, it would be a place that plays with words. And because I believe in and practice organic gardening, it would be a place where a healthy connection between gardens and nature would be evident.

Our first challenge was to attract customers and make sales. I opened in 1992 when the New England economy was deep in a recession. Businesses were closing, not opening; banks were calling in loans, not making them; and employees were leaving the area for the South and the West. But like every entrepreneur who’s ever started a business, I was convinced that I had a good idea and that I could beat the odds and make it work. I knew organic gardening; I knew people loved gardening; I knew how to make beautiful places; and I guessed that others were just as hungry for places like Fred’s as I was. Surely we could put together a combination that would succeed.


On Sale
Mar 4, 2009
Page Count
336 pages
Da Capo Press