Contention in the coffeehouse

  • In the coffeehouse

    In the coffeehouse

    The view from inside my "third place," Willoughby's Coffee in downtown New Haven, including my neighbor, Ed Bednar. Photo by Philip Langdon

Better! Cities & Towns

In August 2010, The Los Angeles Times reported that some coffeehouses had stopped offering freeWiFi—hoping to force more rapid turnover among customers who bring laptops to the shops and then occupy tables for long periods. There have, of course, always been coffee purveyors who didn't want their customers to stay for long. 

Now two business professors—Merlyn Griffiths of the University of North Carolina and Mary Gilly of the University of California-Irvine—have studied these establishments and found that a sizable number of customers continue to use them as places for hanging out, even when shop owners would rather have them move on. 

In an article in the Journal of Social Research, Griffiths and Gilly say that some customers "coopt the space, often using it as an extension of workplaces or homes." In fact, they say, some customers "engage in territorial behaviors that communicate to other customers that intrusion is not welcome."

That probably detracts from the shops' ability to act as what sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his  1989 book The Great Good Place, termed "third places." Oldenburg defined a third place as a location away from work and home, where you stood a good chance of striking up conversations with others who dropped by.

Oldenburg was concerned with how little access many Americans had to an "informal public life." He wrote: "Currently and for some time now, the course of urban growth and development in the United States has been hostile to an informal public life; we are failing to provide either suitable or sufficient gathering places necessary for it."

A sociology professor at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Oldenburg saw cafes, coffee shops, bars, and a bunch of other establishments as places where a person could form or renew social ties—without having to make an appointment to meet people there. In the years since his book came out, the rise of coffeehouses has helped provide the kind of environment that Oldenburg thought was essential to "all great cultures."

In an article posted on the website, Neil Wagner summarizes the recent study by Griffiths and Gilly. Wagner seems to have a poor understanding of the concept of third place—he thinks it's a place where people do not socialize. Perhaps he's never read Oldenburg, who launched national discussion of this topic with his immensely engaging and historically informed book.

In any event, it seems that coffeehouses today offer a mixed experience. Some people encounter others in the coffeehouse and have conversations that make the day more satisfying. Some other people are intent on using the coffeehouse as a place for writing, web-surfing, or other activities that preclude meaningful interaction with the human beings just a few feet away.

From what I've observed in coffeehouses in my city and in my travels, these establishments have always had a mix of solitary individuals keeping to themselves and others who are available for socializing. Sometimes a person needs to concentrate on his own concerns, but wants the enlivening atmosphere of a public place. Sometimes the same person hungers for conversation and human connection. Coffeehouses, in my experience, accommodate both of those frames of mind. 

Oldenburg voiced concern that "The importance of informal meeting places is not deeply ingrained in our young culture, nor is the citizen suitably fortified for a rational argument in their behalf." That's less true now than it was when Oldenburg wrote it 23 years ago. America has made progress, thanks to Oldenburg, New Urbanism, and probably other influences as well.

I could say more, but I have to head out for some French roast.

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