Making the most of college: Finding your coffee community

Does your life have a third place?

Appears in Fall 2007 Issue: Making the most of college (second annual)
September 1 st 2007

Owning a coffee shop has lots of benefits: freshly baked scones for breakfast, espresso macchiato whenever, meeting new folks, and working with my family, to name a few. But one of the most rewarding things to see is the wide range of people that come through our doors—moms, factory workers, pastors, the homeless, neighbourhood kids, professors, and college students—and they all have the same basic human needs. The need for companionship is so easily met by a coffee shop. Its neutral but hospitable space and the convivial nature of coffee allow people to relax and open up to each other.

In his book, The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg describes the societal need for "third places." Unlike our first place, which is home, and the second places in our lives, which are institutions we feel an obligation to be at (as with church, school, and work), third places are informal community gathering places. They are those places where you can show up and expect to see people you know and to get your neighbourhood news for the day. You don't necessarily need to go with anybody else to feel comfortable. You'll be at ease in the setting and with whoever's there. In fact, the people you'd most likely invite to go with you will be there already anyway.

Unfortunately, in our modern society most of our natural third places are gone. Main Street, family pubs, and general stores either don't exist anymore or have become inhospitable to those who'd like to stand or to sit around and chat. Now we only have the rare bar, barbershop, coffeehouse, or other old-timey business that happens to allow loafers—like the lumber yard in downtown Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, that has an ever-present crowd of old, retired, crotchety men surrounded in cigar smoke and accompanied by an old but friendly chocolate lab and a burned-out Mr. Coffee pot full of sludge. They'd run the city if they were allowed, and I'm pretty sure they think they do anyway. Theirs is a true third place—they made it such themselves in a very unlikely place, and spend time there everyday catching up with each other and talking in depth about neighbourhood matters. They and their place encourage me to make our space hospitable enough to encourage those conversations and ideas.

The third, purely comfortable setting

In college, third places are just as important as when you're old and crotchety. Third places are neutral—they are places where there is no home turf, which is especially important if a tough conversation or disagreement must happen. Your dorm room definitely doesn't qualify (especially a guy's dorm, because of the smell), and most dorm lounges don't either. Second places aren't neutral either, as they are defined (and appropriately so) by the institution's operations and mission. Your job has procedures and protocol, your classroom has a prescribed schedule, readings, and assignments, and your church has a tradition and expectations. All these things can be good and are necessary to society. We need all three places in our lives, but the first one to be overlooked is usually the third. Third places allow friends to share ideas and have conversations in a freer manner, and to explore a wider base of friends.

Anna and Kalyn, introduced recently by Esther Meek in her Comment article entitled "Making the Most of College: Learning with Friends," discovered another aspect of the freedom found in a neutral coffee shop spaces. Those Van Til study sessions Dr. Meek referred to happened here at the Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Company. It was inspiring to see the rousing discussion amongst friends, and to see them open up and think deeply together as they studied in a purely comfortable setting. The friendship between the two girls and with their two professors was deepened. Could those sessions have been quite as productive in a classroom or in an office? They certainly wouldn't have been able to sip excellent lattes in front of a fireplace in the winter months, or refreshing Italian sodas on the front porch as the weather warmed. Maybe they would have felt confined by the viewpoints and atmosphere of a host in an office, although subconsciously. The host would have felt pressured to prepare his or her office for four or more people, and they would all have felt more constrained by time with a clock hanging overhead. Here at the shop, they are surrounded by all types of people, with all types of backgrounds and worldviews, and that's inspiring. I urge you to find a third place for yourself—you should be able to walk to it, be comfortable just showing up, and have your basic need for companionship met. If one isn't nearby, maybe it is time for you to start one!

Interaction with a real neighbourhood

Places can be made for yourself on campus, like the study table or lobby couch or cafeteria alcove where people gather between classes, or a snack bar, or the student union pool tables, or wherever you make it. But you and your friends need to go off campus sometimes and get yourselves amongst people who aren't necessarily like you. It's easy to lose sight of what life outside of your institution is like. The only older people at college are your professors, and they are of a certain type. There are no kids and very few, if any, pets at college; that isolation has very little to do with most people's post-college lives. When you're surrounded only by people just like you, in your age group, it's hard to think past your group's mindset. You can learn from your friends when you hang out in the dorm, but you add to your potential when you surround yourselves with new diverse groups of people in hospitable settings that encourage conversation. A neighbourhood coffee shop is perfect—you'll see people of all ages and backgrounds.

Sitting in a shop, you or your group might be next to a young family or an old retired couple, or guys on their way home from work. The close proximity of tables and seating in a coffee shop encourages informal interaction among groups. Last Valentine's Day, our shop was quite crowded, with nowhere left to sit. Our "thirty-something" pastor and his wife were enjoying a date in front of our fireplace, but when a freshman couple came in from the cold, they offered to share their coveted fireplace seats. The four of them were crammed in together, keeping mostly to themselves. Occasionally, though, they chatted all together, and I think the younger couple was inspired by the older and the older by the younger. Wisdom and experience, vigor and freshness were shared all around. Think of all the new acquaintances you could make in places like this, and how rich your college life can be outside the institution's walls, enhanced by interaction with a real neighbourhood.

The hospitable beverage

Coffee lends itself to these third-place scenes. It warms and soothes the body, and gives a quick energy boost. People drink it everyday, and many go to the same places everyday to get it—coffee is the second most highly traded commodity in the world! You're likely to run into people repeatedly that you don't know outside the shop, and get to know them there. Those people you meet due to regularity will meet and blend with your usual friends. Suddenly the retired grandma you met last month is chatting with your roommate, and they find out they are both originally from the same hometown a few states away. Your close friend discovers that he shares a favorite drink with the businessman sitting near him at lunch, and the association they form over weeks of showing up at the same time and ordering the same thing eventually leads to an internship. A mill worker chimes in during a meeting your project group is having, and gives you an idea for your presentation. All the while, the coffee is flowing.

Coffee is a hospitable beverage: it's the first thing offered to a guest and the finishing touch to an evening meal. A wide range of people can enjoy it, and no one must be the designated driver. Many people just need something to structure their gatherings, whether large or small, and coffee provides that. Coffee can sustain folks through a long meeting, or make a first date less awkward (you can always finish your coffee quickly and make the finished drink your excuse to get home, or you could have another cup).

Heather and J.J. decided to order that extra cup. They met at a coffee shop in college, got to know each other there, and spent a lot of their dating relationship there. At their recent wedding, we brought our portable espresso machine and set up a coffee shop for them at their reception. Many of their guests were baristas from that shop, and other people they had met there. Heather and J.J. had formed deep relationships at the local coffee shop near their college, with each other and with the diverse people from that neighbourhood.

It's very interesting to see the friendships that start, or develop, or rekindle, or nurture, or even that dwindle (although that's not so nice) at the Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Company. We've seen old men lingering over coffee and having a conversation they've probably had many times over and over through the years. We've seen young college couples on dates whispering near the fireplace, groups of friends playing rowdy board games in our back room, and old college roommates reuniting for the first time in ten or even forty years. I've seen friends chatting while curled up on the couch or rocking in wicker rocking chairs on the front porch, hands wrapped around warm mugs. All of these diverse people come here for the same two basic reasons: coffee and companionship, whether with their old friends or with new ones they meet during their time here.

Develop a relationship with a third place while you're at college, and even when you move away after graduation, you'll have those rich memories and important associations with the outside world that will stay with you forever.

Oh, and drink lots of coffee (it's good for the economy).

Topics: Cities Education
 

Bethany grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, but now calls Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania her home. She graduated from Geneva College with a degree in music, and now runs the Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Company with her husband Russ.

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