Mostly due to its Mormon influence, Southern Utah has an interesting relationship with certain establishments, coffeehouses being one of them. As a transplant (from Michigan to Boston to Australia to St. George), I was surprised by many aspects of Southern Utah: the Mormon culture, the heat, the fiery colors, the lack of trees, the absence of nightlife. However, I’ve always kept coming back to coffee. Though it may sound silly, I feel displaced because I don’t have my coffee — but it is so much more than that.
Coffee shops — along with bars, parks, churches, and gyms — are categorized as “third places,” after home (“first place”) and work (“second place”). In a sociological realm, they are seen as inviting, equalizing, low-commitment spaces that foster a sense of community and are important to an individual’s sense of belonging.
Not only do coffee shops function as third places but many consider coffee houses to be modern-day salons: gatherings of intellectuals for the dual purpose of socialization and intellectual discourse — a concept that has been passed down and modified through millennia with Greek symposia and the salons of the 18th century Enlightenment era.
As a writer, coffee shops have been vital to my creative process. In Boston, I would often frequent coffee shops in the afternoon and again after dark. A coffee shop nearby my work stayed open until 1 a.m., and I often left as they locked the doors behind me. I’ve never been on a more consistent and immerse writing schedule than when I lived in Australia. Coincidentally, Australia is celebrated for its strong, espresso-based coffee culture.
People have asked me, “Why don’t you just work from home?” And my reason is almost unexplainable, but I need that public, teeming, comfortable energy to prompt my creative process. With more than 100 colleges in the greater Boston area, the energy at the coffee houses on the East Coast was colored with academic intellectualism. A friend of mine who has alternated between the East Coast and Los Angeles has remarked on a number of occasions that “in Boston, everyone seems to be working on their dissertation; in the coffee shops in LA, everyone is working on their script.” That academic, intellectual energy is replaced by a free-flowing, creative one — but the energy is still there.
In Southern Utah, I’m missing my anchoring third place as well as my gathering space for free-thinking; they just both happen to revolve around coffee.
With three locations in St. George (one of these being a parking lot drive-thru off the Boulevard), the closest I’ve come to finding my place is Perks. The Sunset Boulevard location has many elements conducive to a successful third place: large round tables, comfortable couches, games, and friendly staff. In Washington, the indoor seating is limited, but I’ve had many a wonderful conversation with other patrons on Perks’ patio. But Perks closes before sundown, the energy isn’t vibrant, and no one seems to stay long.
So, it must not just be Southern Utah’s culture that makes coffeehouses hard to come by. The Starbucks takeover and the implementation of Wi-Fi into every building in the known universe has created an environment that is essentially the enemy of innovative thought: fast-paced and isolating.
On the rare occasion I do make my way to Starbucks, there are more cars in the drive-thru than people in the building. A drive-thru at a coffeehouse — though convenient for the morning fix, I understand — interrupts the original intent of the third place environment, like placing a freeway through a church.
On the pick-up counter, transparent cups with their classic, identifiable green logo are foaming to the tops of their little dome lids: a confection of sugar, syrup, powder, and whipped cream — anything as far removed from coffee beans as possible. In fact, megacorporations such as Starbucks even have apps from which you can order your drink in advance, anything to limit your time spent within the confines of the actual establishment, anything to limit your interaction with other people, anything to keep yourself in your own little isolated bubble without any interruptions.
In my last opinion piece, “What does creativity look like in the classroom?” I touched briefly on how innovative thought often thrives in collaboration-based environments. In addition to this, I concluded with recognizing the fact that no ideas exist in a vacuum; rather, our creative, inventive ideas are often derived from someone else’s thoughts.
Combining these two thoughts from my previous article, I posture that coffee shops could — or even should — be the places where collaboration meets this reinventing process. What other environments encourage the free-thinking, open-minded, communal idea sharing for which I’m advocating? Perhaps some conference rooms, but these are specialized places open only to those employed by said company. Perhaps school study rooms, but these are specific to students. Perhaps friend circles, but these often invite stagnant, similar ways of thinking and often disallow new members.
Where is Southern Utah’s salon? Where is the melding-of-minds third place? If third places are vital to possessing a sense of belonging and connectedness to a place, wouldn’t we want to have them everywhere, available and welcoming to everyone?