- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

You can predict what will happen at the McLean Family Restaurant on most weekday mornings. The coffee will be hot, the eggs will be cooked to order, and Paul Black will be sitting in the booth by the window.

Mr. Black, a 72-year-old insurance broker, has been a regular at the coffee shop for more than 15 years. He has a set of friends here. He good-naturedly ribs Virginia and Hugh Bushmiller of Arlington when they slide into the booth bench across from him. No one needs to look at the menu. The servers greet them like old friends.

“I’m here every day,” Mr. Black says, “but I also hit the bagel shop down the street. I have a set of friends there, too.”

Says Mrs. Bushmiller: “We’re regulars because the food is good and everyone knows our name. We’re connected to our community in a lot of ways — the kids live within 20 miles; we have a neighborhood, a church.

“In a way, this is a respite from those unruly mobs,” she jokes.

The McLean Family Restaurant on Chain Bridge Road is a quintessential “third place.” A third place is a spot that is not home and not work but equally familiar and, some say, as necessary.

In this age of far-flung suburbs, transient neighbors and telecommuters, third places are more desirable than ever, says sociologist Ray Oldenburg. Mr. Oldenburg, author of “The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community,” coined the term third place in 1980 after he found himself living in car-oriented suburbia for the first time.

“People want to find people like themselves,” Mr. Oldenburg says in an interview from his Florida home. “It used to be you would walk down the street and find friends.”

These days, even on one’s own street, the neighbors often are inside playing video games, relaxing in their home theaters, caught in traffic or simply not interested in knowing anyone new.

That means lots of people are looking for places to connect, even if it is a corporate hot spot such as Starbucks or Barnes & Noble, says Mark Rosenbaum, professor of marketing at Northern Illinois University. Mr. Rosenbaum’s research focuses on the role of third places in consumers’ lives.

Mr. Rosenbaum says the brief interactions of daily life have been dying out. Society is automated; people are busy.

“McMansions and planned suburbia have cut down the number of times people socialize,” Mr. Rosenbaum says, “but people want those connections. People will talk to strangers in a way they won’t talk to anyone else. [Planners] have tried to put some of that into high-end shopping centers, but that really prohibits daily patronage. It gets expensive to go to the Cheesecake Factory every day.”

That’s why the best third place is a basic place, Mr. Rosenbaum says. The library — free and full of reading material and people — is gaining popularity. Coffeehouses and diners, where the investment in refreshments can be minimal, are, of course, third places. McDonald’s can suffice for some. The dog park is the place to be for others.

Malls would seem to be a good third place, but Mr. Rosenbaum points out that there aren’t enough places to sit. Plenty of comfortable seating is crucial, he says.

“The goal for retailers is to encourage buying, so mall owners are not going to promote malls as third places,” he says. “If there is nowhere to sit, there is no socializing. Are there backs on the chairs? If there are no backs, then people will purchase, finish and go.

“The best third place is so simple,” Mr. Rosenbaum says. “It is a place you can relax. And before you can have friendships, you have to have brief interactions.”

Tricia and Bob Freeda of McLean agree. They have been eating in the same booth (which, not coincidentally, is comfortable and high-backed) at the McLean Family Restaurant for years. The couple work together, too, but usually start the day by saying hello to their restaurant friends.

“We don’t live around any of our family,” Mrs. Freeda says. “I guess that’s why we’re always here — otherwise you would go to your sister’s house.”

A few weeks ago, one of the Freedas’ favorite waitresses passed out on the job. The Freedas accompanied her to the hospital.

“She’s very special to us,” Mr. Freeda says. “So we wanted to make sure she was OK.”

Although coffee shops come to mind as great places to connect, hang out and feel at home, they are morphing into a new purpose. Starbucks, for instance, used to be the place where home-based workers took a break and reconnected with the world outside the office. Now, with laptops, WiFi and BlackBerry devices, the office is wherever the lattes are.

Look around any of the Washington area’s hundreds of Starbucks shops. Sure, there are PTA moms and neighborhood children using it as the third place. However, more and more people are using coffeehouses as their office — and that brings about a whole new set of social space rules.

Coffeehouses might be safe and neutral, but they actually are difficult places to work, says Jim Ware, executive producer of the Future of Work, a California-based research group.

“They are not really designed for work,” Mr. Ware says. “There are not enough electric outlets; tables are small. But with the growth of wireless communication, people are learning to work anyplace and anytime.”

A coffeehouse full of telecommuters is a contrast to a place with the friendliness of the McLean Family Restaurant. A Bluetooth in the ear means, “Don’t talk to me, I am expecting a call.” Typing on a laptop says, “I’m busy.” Spreading out papers until they encroach on someone else’s space will get you, at minimum, a dirty look.

“Being at a coffee shop, people want to be around others, but they don’t want to know them,” Mr. Ware says. “Working in public gets you accustomed to social white noise. At the office, for instance, you are constantly interrupted by co-workers. Working in public is where people go when they want to be really productive. … When people realize you are working, they tend to leave you alone.”

Patrick J.D. Kennedy, 24, director of public programs for the Clinton School of Public Services in Little Rock, Ark., spends lots of time in Washington for work. He estimates that he spends about 15 hours a week working in a public space such as a coffee shop.

Mr. Kennedy was at the large Starbucks at Dupont Circle on a recent weekday morning. He settled into a seat by the window, laptop plugged in, BlackBerry charged, and coffee and pastry in place.

“This is the easiest place to work,” he says, adding that spending part of the day in his hotel room is too confining.

“The atmosphere keeps me engaged,” Mr. Kennedy says. “I have a lot of meetings in coffee shops. It is easier to get away if I don’t like how it is going.”

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