Third places are a community living room

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Neil Johnson
Thursday, January 23, 2014

JANESVILLE—It was 10 degrees below zero outside, but inside Mocha Moment in Janesville, the hot coffee flowed, a fireplace blazed, and a group of women sat knitting enough wool to warm a Russian army.

Nestled between the coffee shop's service counter and a table of local Realtors, the ladies of the Trinity Episcopal Church knitting circle chatted as they worked loop after loop onto multicolored scarves and potholders.

“I'm the hooker of the bunch,” Adele Smith said, brandishing her hooked knitting needle to punctuate a well worn inside joke among her knitting circle.

A few of the ladies chuckled, and a man at another table looked up from his morning newspaper with a smile.

Everybody who has morning coffee regularly at the coffee shop off of Center Avenue knows the knitting circle. The group of about 15 women is at Mocha Moment for a few hours every Thursday morning with their knitting baskets and their latest knitting projects. They trade knitting magazines, tap into knitting apps on wireless tablets, and sip mochas and tea while they visit.

“This is our place that's home when you've just got to get out of the house,” knitter Judy Copeland said.

Mocha moment is among a handful of local third places—businesses that offer a community living room where people congregate regularly, and sometimes, ritually.

It's a phenomenon that's hard to quantify, although another regular at Mocha Moment, Steve “Ole” Olson, tried to sum up the concept of a third place.

“People need social lubrication,” Olson, said.

Olson reads the paper at the coffee shop at the same spot every day—at the table next to the door. He doesn't table-hop or hobnob. He just says hello to everybody arrives at Mocha Moments. The customers all know him. He's Ole who sits by the door, the defacto greeter with whom they chew the fat with for 20 or 30 seconds.

“It's not only about the coffee. You come here, well, I come here because I feel appreciated. I'm in here three, four mornings a week. When I'm not, people will wonder. It's like, they weren't worried, but something's missing. Where's Ole today?”

Katherine Cramer, a social scientist at UW-Madison, works on data analysis involved with polling, and she's noticed that newer-era third places such as coffee shops and local diners seem to have a growing number of habitual customers who define themselves as regulars.

It's particularly a trend among young adults. Cramer suggested that technology-based interaction has them starved for face-to-face interaction, and some people are turning to third places to reconnect.

“We see new technology, and face-to-face interaction for years has become less a part of life. But there has been a trend, a turning toward people using whatever meeting place they can find for face-to-face interaction. As people have become more and more immersed in our smartphones, they find it less and less satisfying.

“Sitting on social networks, your phone, your Facebook, it's nothing like having a place. You don't sit down and pat your coffee shop pal on the shoulder on Facebook,” Cramer said.

Eight months ago, Jason Allen filled a storefront on West Milwaukee Street in Janesville with antique toys, relics and collectibles he'd formerly been selling only on the Internet. The shop, Mantiques, caters specifically to males who are collectors. 

The vintage and antique shop sells mostly items that are the stuff of man caves everywhere: old comic books, trading cards, used vinyl records and classic Star Wars action figures.

A few months after he opened, he noticed a core of male customers beginning to show up more and more often. Not to shop necessarily; they were coming to hang out.

It started with long, intellectual conversations on classic comic book superheroes. They'd hang out all day. Then they started ordering in pizza. Now, they stay all day. 

That surprised Allen at first, and then it dawned on him. Mantiques was becoming a third place for nostalgia maniacs.

“I think it's because we're selling nostalgia, kind of. It's as much the stuff as it is the people who are here, because you can't have nostalgia without people. Also, I think these guys realize their wives don't want to talk about vintage records all day,” Allen said.

The buddy ambiance makes the place a perpetual hangout; it seems like the garage or basement of the coolest person you went to high school with. That seems to put new customers at ease and draw them in, Allen said.

“It's a fun, cool, safe place. We don't talk about politics here. A guy can come in with a Superman cape on, and nobody's going to say anything, except probably compliment him on it, because that's normal here,” Allen said.

Forward Janesville President John Beckord said that kind of camaraderie is something certain cities try to market as a tangible symbol of creativity, niche and even funkiness.

“It's a trendy thing in current circles to count third spaces as a real important element of a community's brand. There are, in fact, cities that tout their concentration of third spaces as a sign that there's a whole lot of activity and creativity going on there,” Beckord said.

Yet, it's confounding, Beckord said, that there is no hard data that shows third places create a big boon in a macro economic sense. You can't quantify it's impact.

“When you read all the economic development journals, they list the top 10 or top 20 reasons why companies are investing in the community. For some reason, the number of third places in a community is never on the list,” Beckord said.

Economics is the last thing 92-year-old Allen Grove resident Jim Delaney is thinking about when he hits up the Countryside Restaurant, a diner on Highway 14 in rural Darien.

Every day at 8 a.m., he arrives at the diner for oatmeal and coffee, sometimes eggs on Friday. Every day he visits with his friends: Edwin, a tall man named Slim and about a half-dozen other longtime locals.

Delaney, a long-retired farm implement mechanic, said he needs the company.

“I'm a loner. I hate an empty stomach and need the camaraderie. This is where you come to meet, then you go your separate ways. That's an awful lot to me,” he said.

Delaney has had breakfast with the same crowd for years, watching the farming seasons glide by and friends pass on. On a snowy Thursday morning, he talked about the essence of his third place, his diner. It's the people—even those who aren't there.

He pointed to an empty seat he said one of his friends occupies daily. He said the friend had fallen ill and was in the hospital.

“We're missing one today,” he said.

Delaney took off his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes, unashamed.

“These are your friends, your people. You feel that. Every day.”

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