Striving for third place: Las Vegans need more gathering spots beyond their homes and jobs

Gäbi Coffee & Bakery
Photo: Wade Vandervort

I remember when there were five Starbucks locations in this town. We approached them with expectancy and awe—It’s from Seattle! All the drink names are Italian!—and for a solid month we drank them dry. (Hard to believe it now, but a Starbucks cup was once a conversation starter.) Then, the novelty exhausted, we returned to our favorite seats at Cafe Espresso Roma, Copioh and Enigma. When we hit Starbucks these days, it’s usually a drive-thru.

The reason we preferred those aforementioned, Vegas-born establishments—sadly all defunct now—wasn’t because they made a better cup of coffee (though on a given day, at least two of them did), or because they were the first in the Valley to go pseudo-Italian. Rather, we went there because we felt like we belonged there. I could walk into Enigma virtually any time of the morning, afternoon or evening—because back then, most local coffeehouses stayed open into the evening hours—and find at least one friend to talk to, argue or flirt with. Failing that, I could sit alone among other groups of friends, do my work and feel like I was being social.

That sensation is part of what compelled me to move to Seattle in 2002. Way up yonder, neighborhood cafes and coffeehouses run thick; it’s not unusual to find one right next door to another. The reason for this, as near as I could figure out, is simple: Seattle’s long, gray, wet winters have the potential to drive anyone insane, and if you’ve only got your home and your workplace to sustain you, you’re not going to make it. You need a spot where you can hang out for a long stretch and read a book, chat with a neighbor or play chess with a frenemy. You need a “third place.”

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg introduced the term “third place” in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. He reasoned that in order for communities to form and grow, we need a gathering spot beyond our homes and jobs (places one and two). As examples, he cited several historic types of locales, among them the agoras of ancient Greece and the taverns of the American Revolution—places to make friends, exchange ideas and build societies. To those, I would add the cafes of Seattle, which kept me sane for 10 years, and the extinct coffeehouses of Maryland Parkway, where I met virtually everyone I know today.

Happily, new third places are developing around us. This column was written at two of them: Sambalatte in Boca Park and the new Writer’s Block. Gäbi Coffee & Bakery, in Chinatown, punches several boxes; not only does it give off strong Northwest coffeehouse vibes, but it also has the feel of a museum, a park, a library—other first-class third places. (By the way, our libraries are also splendid places to hang out—Sahara West, particularly.) We have board-game cafes, places of worship and, after sundown and in winter, our parks. But there’s not nearly enough of these places just yet, and we need them badly. Without third places, we might be tempted to lean too heavily on the internet for the socializing we used to do in public.

So, let’s build the cafes, the museums (I used to spend hours writing in Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park) and the air-conditioned park pavilions. Let’s keep the coffeehouses open past 4 p.m. (looking at you, Vesta Coffee Roasters) and renew our library cards. Let’s skip the bars for once, get together someplace relatively quiet and talk to each other. Let’s make some great good places and, I dunno, maybe hatch a revolution there.

Photo of Geoff Carter

Geoff Carter

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