Missing a Third Place

I am reminded perhaps by time and depravity, that I am missing a third place. We used to walk to our third place, aptly named Third Place Books and in the basement, the Pub at Third Place. Imagine that, an after dinner stroll, to book browse or for a beer. If ever you find yourself in the Ravenna neighborhood in NE Seattle, drop in and stay a spell.



Canary in a Coal Mine, when an independent bookstore dies.

The Market Street Books at Arts & Letters Community Center is closing at the end of the month. We heard it first as rumor, then by e-newsletter, the local newspapers, and finally by the absolutely pitiful and undignified butcher paper sign hastily taped in the window with “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” scratched out in Sharpie giving no credence to either Arts nor Letters.

As I rode by our own little local neighborhood bookshop this morning, it was like the Canary in a Coal Mine: vivid, high-contrast, caution-yellow against the Carolina blue sky. When your indie bookstore dies, is it a sign of times to come? Or has that time already arrived and only now, in your own backyard, do you feel the loss felt across the State, across the Nation and beyond?

Or is the bookseller’s commoditization of information its own predestined demise? It is for certain that an evolution occurred with the massive chain bookstores selling ambiance to sell books…or sell anything. When they were franchised together with coffee shops, fit out with cushy chairs apart and in clusters, wood trim, hunter green, live music.  It seems almost heinous to suggest that kind of evolve-or-die encouragement now.

But Market Street Books evolved too: as travel books and maps approached obsolescence by the internet, “Maps” was dropped and “Community” was added:

“We are a non-profit, full-service independent bookshop and arts-based community center, located in the Southern Village neighborhood of Chapel Hill. Our mission is to provide a destination for people who love books, theater, music, and art to come and hang out. Our motto is Contagious Creativity. Come in and experience the infectious ethusiasm and imaginative energy.

Market Street Books carries a wide selection of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. Arts & Letters Community Center is bustling with activities like children’s theater, tai chi, drawing, altered books, and clay classes. Please check our schedule of events for fun things to do. (Click here for Peepfest 2009.)…children and pets welcome!”

Contagious Creativity? Children? Pets? Peeps?

On a business trip, when we first learned that we would be moving back to Chapel Hill, the first place I stopped into was this bookshop. I went in to ask about the neighborhood and soak up anything North Carolina. Later, my daughter did chlidren’s theater camps and clay classes. “Sweet” the candy shop was where lemonade stand proceeds were spent. And you could always find a great gift here. But ambiance came from the people and the community they intertwined, convening in that third place making the neighborhood a better place to live. This shop represented a whole lot more than this to some people, but for sure, there’s at least a little loss felt by most everyone with a place in their heart for the indie bookshop, and Peeps.

If only someday we can harness “imaginative energy ” to keep the lights on.

When in Siler City, NC, you have to eat at Pollo Libre!

On our stretch of Hwy 64 between Pittsboro and Asheboro, en route to grandma & gramdpa’s over the years and recently, I am struck and disturbed by the same roadside distractions: Lorax-fabled land-use practices, the thriving MHP businesses and vacant strip malls with shiny new combo fastfood-and-gas stations out in front.

But of the roadside a-ttractions,we pass a wonderful pair of stacked stone pillars in front of a distinguished enough Carolina I-house, one black, one white and of the same form and proportion, nicely spaced and slightly larger than the human scale, that Goldsworthy himself would be proud to call his own.

Early "Goldsworthy" (with mortar)
Early "Goldsworthy" (with mortar)

There’s the plain and simple “Hog Slat” brand logo on the supply co. building with all the cool galvanized stuff  that Chapel Hill architects covet and a logo that any hipster would pay to have on a t-shirt or distressed ball cap to wear at kickball practice.


And there’s that old Exxon station in Siler City, $1.13/gal still up on the sign. It’s old but not way old, more 70s vintage. And small by today’s standards, one- sided and backed up against an industrial chicken processing plant, and pinched by the widening of 64 in the past 10 years or so.

Pollo Libre with Townsends, Inc. Processing looming over
Pollo Libre with Townsends, Inc. Processing looming over

Only the road-weary bothers to ponder the re-use of a brownfield site like this Exxon. I can see the Aardman-faced chicken leaping to freedom over the CMU-and-chainlink between the Exxon and the proceesing plant, seeking safe haven at…Pollo Libre!Siler City’s response to McChipotle but with the real soul of taquerias on wheels!

Pollo Libre: freedom from industrial poultry processing
Pollo Libre: freedom from industrial poultry processing

Aunt Bee may not have appreciated the humor or the 2000 census putting Central NC counties at the  top of the latino immigration populaiton explosion. But Pollo Libre! is almost already Siler City’s premiere third place for locals that I’d stopped in everytime on these roadtrips from Chapel Hill to garndma’s house in my mind. Imagine: Univision, the spanish-dubbed version of Chicken Run looping continuously and futbol matches on large flat screens with lines at walk-up windows for the only all-locally grown all-vegetarian, pupusa,  tamal & menudo experience for miles deep in the heart of the latino immigrant south! Beautiful lowriders, custom pick-ups (and liquor-sickles too) out front cranking next gen corridos about social justice and their rightful place in the American mainstream!

Frances Baviar: Siler City's own Aunt Bee
Frances Baviar: Siler City's own Aunt Bee

…and open ’til midnight. Salud!

Le boutquier dans le quartier: the shopkeeper in the da hood

Is the glue that holds communities together the same tube of glue some families need? An old family rift just recently got deeper and I’m desperate to make reparations it’s just I’ve spent a career looking at the fabric of our physical environment, and little on the fabric of the lives that occupy and animate it.

Take as a for instance, the role of the corner store: the power of place to convene strangers, cause chance encounters, make routine a tradition. I think of my year in a small town in England, the derogatory phase “Paki” used to describe immigrant- mainly Pakistani-owned corner stores, and the antidote band Cornershop, but also of school kids let out in the afternoon and stopping in for a jawbreaker or licorice rope (anything that lasts longer than the rest of the walk home).

Sweet memories: Children spend their pocket money in a traditional candy shop the likes of which are all-but forgotten today from Real England by Paul Kingsnorth, published by Portobello Books
Sweet memories: Children spend their pocket money in a traditional candy shop the likes of which are all-but forgotten today from Real England by Paul Kingsnorth, published by Portobello Books

In England’s The Daily Mail, I found the article How England is Losing the Very Things That Make it Worth Living in, extolling the virtues of this special kind of ‘third place’, and railing on a bit more about globalization and the demise of the independent and locally-based society and economy (to which I might blog on later). Or the local bakery, bar or pub. To hear “…haven’t seen you in awhile, Mr. Jones, how have you been…” gets you humming the Cheers theme song “…where everybody knows your name…and they’re always glad you came…”.

How about the family restaurant, and that family who owns it? They are not immune to dysfunction, but by their place in an extended family, a neighborhood community or perhaps part of local lore and tradition (“…when you’re in Durham, you have to eat at the Magnolia Grill…” or Bullock’s Barbeque one!), these families may be more prone to sticking it out, for a greater calling, one beyond oneself or profit alone.

Common uses for cornmeal in the South: haute cuisine or homecooking, food IS identity
Common uses for cornmeal in the South: haute cuisine or homecooking, food IS identity

Can a labor of love be a living and a calling? Can working together on the survival and success of the family business be the same spirit that communities and towns and nations need to thrive?

And can the family find meaning in their collective successes and failures, validated by sales revenues or simply smiling satisfied customers or the cordial greeting or paid compliment: “…hello Ms. Jones, what a fine hat…”.

There is risk to putting out your wares, hanging your shingle and engaging the public realm. The payback is immeasurable, in place-building, identity and belonging. Le boutquier dans le quartier: the shopkeeper in da hood is code for the role locally owned independent catalysts of humanity play in neighborhoods everywhere (you just have to look harder these days).