Defining Third Place

This essay was first published November 2012 in My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop (edited by Ronald Rice with an introduction by Richard Russo)

third place \ ‘thərd ‘plās \ 1: a term coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg; used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home (first place) and work (second place). ˂What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably—a place on the corner, real-life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile ~ Ray Oldenburg˃ 2: an open, light-filled public space offering a variety of food and drink, furnished with large sturdy tables that have been sliced from the massive trunks of salvaged Douglas firs, and employing a waitstaff that is completely unconcerned with rapid customer turnover 3: deluxe amenities of some third-place locales include bookstores, bowling lanes, live music and/or juke boxes, upright pianos, beanbag and/or barber chairs, community kiosks, photo booths, beer and wine licenses, wood-burning stoves, and giant chess sets 4: the monthly meeting venue for The Commoners, a five-person writing group to which you belonged for ten years, through marriages and divorces, house sales and purchases, the deaths of parents and dear friends, the births of children and grandchildren, job firings, unemployment, and job retrainings 5: the place where your writers’ group spends seven of those years critiquing every chapter of your first novel, Part One of your second novel, and half a dozen short stories—all this beginning in 1996, long before you even dared to dream that anything you wrote would actually be published 6: where, season after season, your writers’ group offers smart, insightful, and kindly voiced variations on one of two things that all writers need to hear in order to become better: (1) Keep going. Don’t give up. It’s wonderful. (2) Keep going. Don’t give up. It’s not good enough. 7: comments involving variations on ˂it’s not good enough˃ sting less because they are offered over lattes, herbal tea, and calorically generous pastries provided by Honey Bear Bakery 8: it is where you nurse your second baby on the first Saturday of the month from November 1997 through April 1998 while drinking decaf and nibbling disks of fruit panettone sprinkled with generous amounts of organic sugar and fennel ˂an aid to lactation˃ and listening to your writers’ group continue to critique your first novel—the one you began writing before this baby was even conceived, the one you won’t finish and finally publish until he is 7 years old and his older brother is ten 9: where your sons play with the giant chess set as soon as they are slightly taller than the rooks 10: in the fall of 2003, where you spend many hours over the course of several weeks sitting at one of those expansive wooden tables editing your first novel after it is accepted for publication, your notes executed in a ragged, barely legible scrawl because ˂having recently discovered that the cooling effects of an ice-skating rink provide fabulous relief for menopausal hot flashes˃ you signed up for a private ice-skating tutorial, fell ten minutes into the lesson, and fractured your right radius. It is your first broken bone ever. The novel you are editing is called Broken for You. 11: where you go to meet your writers group as usual on the morning of January 7, 2006: the first Saturday of the New Year, the morning after you held vigil and watched your mother die almost a year to the day after your dad; you go because one of your earliest memories is of your mother’s hands demonstrating the right way to open a book; because it is from your mother that you inherited a sanctified love of reading; because she wept when she read the first draft of your first novel; because she would have wanted you to go; because there is no place in the world you can imagine being—not even the first place of home—that will comfort you today like this place and these people 12: you will forever bear a grudge against a famous American movie star/daughter of movie stars who shall remain nameless because at a huge third-place event promoting her latest children’s book she was cruel to your bookselling buddies 13: you will forever adore Alan Alda even more than you already did because at a similar event promoting his autobiography he was kind to them 14: since you have a habit of inscribing all book purchases with the date and place of purchase, you know it is where you acquired the following volumes: Edwin Mullhouse and A Girl Named Zippy; Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence from the Edge of Modern Romance; Strange as This Weather Has Been and Defining the Wind; The View from the Seventh Layer; How Green Was My Valley; Poemcrazy; Stuffed; Saul Bellow: Letters; The Brief History of the Dead; The Face on Your Plate; The Face of a Naked Lady; Woe Is I; Words Fail Me; Writers on Writing, Volume II; A Writer’s Time; Reading Like a Writer; Pitching My Tent; Border Songs; The Great Good Place ˂there are many more books bearing third-place inscriptions in your house; these are only the ones culled from your office shelves˃ 15: it is where you step onstage in December of 2008 to launch your second novel—the one you wrote in the wake of grief, the one dedicated to your deceased parents and a writer friend who committed suicide 16: it is where you teach the audience the Nebraska fight song, flanked by Third Place bookseller/friend Cheryl McKeon and PGW rep/friend Cindy Heideman who hold up large poster boards bearing the lyrics: “Oh, there is no place like Nebraska; dear old Nebraska U; where the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest, of any old place that I knew…” 17: it is where the Q&A is initiated when beloved author/buddy Jim Lynch stands up and asks: “How do you write with such authority about the dead?” ˂It occurs to you as you’re writing this essay that this is the kind of question only a third place would inspire˃ 18: it is where booksellers know you, greet you by name, ask how the next one is going, and don’t mind if you break down in tears and babble on about how the next one isn’t going so well ˂in comfort, they’ll hand you a tissue and hand-sell a book˃ 19: it is where you arrive with your laptop not long after the doors open on July 5, 2012, to complete the final edits to this essay, a couple of hours before setting off on a road trip with your sons <who are now 14 and 17> You bring your twelve-ounce sugar-free hazelnut soy to one of the big round Doug fir tables <the kind The Commoners preferred>, run a finger around the smoothed, curving, shiny edge, count a few closely spaced rings ˂they could be the lines in fairy-ruled composition book˃, realizing that the history of your life as told in this essay occupies only one and a quarter inches. A Chopin ballade is playing through the speakers. A shaft of sunlight illuminates seven middle-aged women gathered around a table beneath one of the skylights, knitting. The kiosk is now a flat-screen TV, but the content hasn’t changed: There are posted notices about Summer Story Times, invitations to join German and Spanish and French conversation groups, requests to consider donating your used musical instruments at the July Farmers’ Market so that all children can play. You are a few days past the deadline, but the editor was understanding about the delay; and besides, it is so important to get this right, this ode, this efharisto, this love letter to the place that has nurtured, solaced, and challenged; the place that has forged connections far beyond those that can be measured on a road atlas; the place that has witnessed your growth into the contours of a grateful, full life, a life you always dreamed of 20: on your way to bus your dishes, you notice two 11-year-old boys who have been sitting behind you as you write this: best friends out of school for the summer. They’ve ridden here on their bikes and are eating lunch at a low counter that encloses a small play area for young children. One boy is pale, freckled, shaped like an Idaho russet; the other is a pole bean with orthodontics. Pole bean is saying, “I said, ‘Where?’ and he said, ‘Four hours ago.’ I said, ‘Where?’ and he said, ‘Four hours ago.’” They both throw back their heads and laugh. Pole bean repeats this exchange three more times before I am out of earshot, and they laugh hysterically every single time. Why are they sitting there? you wonder as you ride the escalator down to your car. Why not at one of the other tables? And then you realize that, of course, it’s because they played in that play place as their folks looked on and chatted here, years ago, when they were still just little kids.

21: [insert your definition here]