Brewing up great third places – coffee shops (updated)

Elephant House - Edinburgh, Scotland

This is to be the first of a series of posts that I plan to write on “great third places.” It is an excellent and accurately descriptive term coined by Ray Oldenburg in his book, The Great Good Place. A third place is defined as:

“Third places are where people congregate other than work or home. England has pubs, France has cafés, and Austria has coffee houses. Once upon a time in the United States, common third places included country stores, post offices, barber shops, hair salons, soda shops, and taverns. Third places contribute to the life worth living. They root us; they give us an identity; they restore us; they support us. Bottom line: They allow us to be us. And everyone knows our name…”

Characteristics of third places include the following aspects:

  • “First, they are neutral, meaning that all people can come and go without penalty. If you don’t go to your third place for a few days or weeks, your return is greeted with interest and enthusiasm.
  • Second, they are level, meaning that the status differences that matter so much elsewhere are not relevant. And no one plays host at a third place.
  • Third, conversation is the main activity in third places, and one of the few ways to offend others present is to be boring.
  • Fourth, third places are accessible, meaning that they have long hours and are easy to get to. No reservation needed!
  • Fifth, third places have regulars. Indeed, regulars define a third place, but new people are accepted, not automatically but often easily.
  • Sixth, third places are physically plain and unpretentious. [In my opinion this should not discount the benefits of being located in a charming building or having unique artistic and cultural aspects].
  • Seventh, and perhaps most critically, the dominant mood of a third place is playful. Laughter abounds.”

To this urban planner, “third places” of the past two decades have been defined by coffee shops, coffee houses, cafes, expresso bars, or whatever term you want to use to describe them. Coffee shops have replaced bars, pubs, and taverns as the principal social gathering spot in many corners of the planet. When I was growing up, coffee shops were an oddity. Today, they are a vitally important and quite often identifiable landmark feature of any urban landscape.  A community  without a landmark coffee shop is the equivalent of a “decaffeinated desert of doom.”

As the sitcom Cheers reflected the bar/pub scene, no single program has exemplified coffee shops as “third places” more than the television sitcom, Friends, where the characters regularly met at a shop called Central Perk.

That is not to say that the other third places don’t remain important – pubs still have an amazing quality in the United Kingdom. Brewpubs have been growing in popularity in North America. In addition, I know of a traditional barber shop in my little segment of Greater Lansing that remains a terrific third place even as its 50 anniversary approaches later this year.

As a kid, the indoor shopping mall or the pinball arcade were the  third places to go and be seen (after school and home). Today, you are as likely to see teenagers in a coffee shop as any other age group.  One reason I believe coffee shops have supplanted bars here, is due to the minimum age of 21 for consuming alcohol in the United States.

Until recently, I had never been much of a coffee drinker. For whatever reason, I hadn’t acquired a taste for it, did not like the occasional burnt tongue aftertaste, and preferred water or before that soft drinks, instead. However, that does not mean I didn’t frequent coffee shops. I have always loved the aroma of freshly ground coffee and find coffee shops to be perfect locations for gathering with friends or just to pass time. Over the years I have observed what to do and what not to do when designing what I would consider a landmark coffee shop.

Eagle Creek Coffee Co. - Zionsville, Indiana

Now that I am a regular hazelnut latte (yummy) fan, I have even more thoughts and ideas on the subject. So here we go with my personal recipe for brewing up a perfect coffee shop. The ideas are presented in no particular order of preference. The list also assumes the coffee tastes good, as these other attributes are what help differentiate the oodles of coffee shops dotting the planet from being a bona-fide landmark third place or falling into also ran status:

  • Wood floors, with some carpeting to muffle footsteps and other sounds. Best examples found – The Elephant House (Edinburgh, Scotland) and Eagle Creek Coffee Company (Zionsville, IN).
  • Brick forming at least a portion of the interior walls. Best example found – Expresso Royale (East Lansing, MI) – added 2/25/12.
  • Some nooks and crannies – don’t give me a cookie-cutter prototypical design. Best examples found – Gone Wired Cafe (Lansing, MI), and The Drowsy Parrot (Saline, MI). Both are two stories and have all kinds of cool places to talk, read, hide, study, surf the net, or people watch.
  • Local art displayed and/or for sale. Best examples found – Coffee & Friends (Okemos, MI) and Expresso Royale (East Lansing, MI) – added 2/25/12.
  • An historic feel to the location. Best examples found – The Elephant House (Edinburgh, Scotland);  Beanscene (Edinburgh-Haymarket, Scotland); and Northwoods Coffee (Coldwater, MI).
  • Free wi-fi with plenty of plugs. Best example found – Grand River Coffee (East Lansing, MI).
  • Variety of food and drink offerings. Best examples found – Red Cedar Cafe (East Lansing, MI) and Tim Hortons (all locations).
  • Comfy, cozy chairs; not ones designed to make you leave quickly. Best example found -Beanscene (Edinburgh-Haymarket, Scotland) and Expresso Royale (East Lansing, MI) – added 2/25/12.
  • Free in-house newspapers. Best example found – Beanscene (Edinburgh-Haymarket, Scotland) and Expresso Royale (East Lansing, MI) – added 2/25/12.
  • At least one sofa, preferably more. Best examples found – Grand River Coffee (East Lansing, MI) and Great Lakes Chocolate & Coffee (Lansing, MI).
  • A pleasant, if not great view/street scene. Hard to top the Elephant House’s view of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. I can see why J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter there. Second place goes to Starbucks at Pike Place Market (Seattle, WA), and third goes to Beanscene (Edinburgh-Haymarket, Scotland).
  • Background music, but not too loud. Best example found – Grand River Coffee (East Lansing, MI) and Expresso Royale (East Lansing, MI) – added 2/25/12.
  • Live music and other events at regular intervals. Best example: Java Express (West Lafayette, IN) – sadly, this eclectic coffee shop no longer exists.
  • Pleasant and friendly staff. Best examples found: Red Cedar Cafe (East Lansing, MI); Eagle Creek Coffee Company (Zionsville, IN); Grand River Coffee (East Lansing, MI); and Biggby Coffee (Okemos-Marsh Road, MI).
  • A fireplace or open-hearth (preferably real). Best example found – Expresso Royale (East Lansing, MI) – added 2/25/12.
  • A cultural and artistic vibe. Best example found – The Elephant House (Edinburgh, Scotland).
  • Books. Best example found – The Drowsy Parrot (Saline, MI).
  • Bicycle parking –  an absolute must! Best example found –  Grand River Coffee (East Lansing, MI) and Red Cedar Cafe (East Lansing, MI).
  • Outdoor seating available. Best examples found – Brothers K (Evanston, IL), Expresso Royale (East Lansing, MI) – added 2/25/12, and Biggby Coffee (Okemos, MI-Marsh Road).
  • Open late and/or all night. Best examples found –  Biggby Coffee (East Lansing, MI-Grand River) and Starbucks (various locations). Once again, both are chains.
  • Busy, but not overrun with too many people. Best example found – Red Cedar Cafe (East Lansing, MI).
  • An independent ambiance, even if it is part of a chain. Best example found – Beanscene (Edinburgh-Haymarket, Scotland). A fairly small chain of coffee shops, but a chain none the less.

UPDATE (2/23/12) – Here are a couple of great additions to the list suggested by readers:

  • Offer/serve fair trade coffees as an option.
  • Include environmentally-sensitive or sustainable design features in the facility.

UPDATE (2/25/12) – Tried Expresso Royale in East Lansing today. It is terrific and meets nearly all the criteria, including a fireplace and a ingenious way of having a outdoor seating area in winter – garage door that opens and closes depending on the weather. The double-sided fireplace provides heat to that area too. They actually serve your coffee in a glass and have great scones too!


Obviously, this list may be revised over time as I discover more great coffee shops. I hope to update it every now and then. If anyone else has additional suggested criteria for a brewing a perfect coffee shop, please feel free to pass them along. Next stop, brewpubs.

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16 Responses to Brewing up great third places – coffee shops (updated)

  1. kwan says:

    This is a really great post! I had never heard of “third places” before, but now that you’ve mentioned it, they are an important element for community interactions! The characteristics you desire for a coffee shop are somewhat illustrated by Pacific Coffee in Hong Kong! Their couches are super comfy aside from their brick walls, kinda dim living room standing lights, a lot of updated magazines and newspapers, and if I remember correctly, a portion of its shop is carpeted. Their coffee is way better than Starbucks too! Thx for sharing!


  2. Nick Helmholdt says:

    I used to live near Gone Wired Café, it was my favorite spot in the neighborhood to just hang out.
    I forget where I heard this, but Post Offices used to be the primary spot where people would gather outside of home and work. Pressure from clergy and pastors caused the government to close post offices on Sundays so that more people could attend church. (I don’t have a link to back it up, but I think about this anecdote any time people talk about Third Places).


  3. Angela says:

    This is great! I am going to forward this to my favorite, and also perfect, third place: Brew’d Awakenings in Lowell, MA. While it doesn’t have a fire place, it has about 99% of the other criteria plus one (which I think should be added to the list for now): organic/fair trade/shade grown coffee. I think a good third place should be eco-conscious as well, but they really need to at least have an option for organic coffee. Thanks for this article. It makes me want to start a coffee shop today…which I’ve wanted to do for many many years after being on the Seattle coffee-circuit. 🙂


    • Rick Brown says:

      Thank you for the great response, Angela. I agree with you 100% on making sure they have fair trade coffee. That is an important addition to the list. As an planner who concentrates on environmental issues, I am a bit embarassed I did not think about including that in my criteria. I too would enjoy owning a coffee shop. Will try to make it to Brew’d Awakenings when I visit my son upon moving to Boston this summer. Great name for a coffee shop. Perhaps a catchy name should be a criteria too? : )


  4. Pingback: Places Shop

  5. I gave thanks to the all company that makes the coffee and the farmers whom planted it. It’s my best friend in all times, in any place, in any situation, depressed moments and a happy moments, Its always there to accompany me. Thanks for the coffee and your post 🙂 Cheers!



  6. joe says:

    And what a great way to have nice conversation is over a cup of excellent coffee.


  7. Debbie says:

    You should give Grand Traverse Pie Company a try, they are a great relaxing environment, and serve Michigan’s home grown Higher Grounds Coffee. They have fast wifi and a double sided fireplace to warm up to. Great coffee, food, desserts and pie too!


    • Rick Brown says:

      I love GT Pie Co. especially their blueberry crumb pie. I did not include them because I consider them primarily a bake shop, which just so happens to be an upcoming post in the great third places blog series. Thank you for the comments.


  8. Pingback: Cooking up great third places – bake shop cafes | Panethos

  9. I’m really glad you took the time to post this article.


  10. Stephanie Amada says:

    Great post. Hope you’ll keep adding to it. Just came by my local Great Lakes Chocolate & Coffee on Mich Ave and they’re closed. I’ll miss it and need to find a new third place to frequent.


    • Rick Brown says:

      Thank you, Stephanie. I was bummed out to learn they were closing too. A couple of suggested alternatives – Grand River Coffee and Red Cedar Cafe – both in East Lansing, and Decker’s Coffee on Washington in downtown Lansing.


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