Say the words cracker barrel and most Americans think of the chain restaurant and gift shop. Cracker Barrel Restaurants and Country Stores were designed to evoke the friendly, homespun character of general stores from the 1800s, when the U.S. was a rural agrarian society. General merchandise stores were usually the only retail establishments for miles around. People would journey long distances to buy their feed, seed, implements, sundries, and staples. Long before the invention of packaged goods, crackers and other bulk items like flour and sugar were shipped in large wooden barrels that with their lids removed served as open displays and dispensers.
More than just stores.
General stores, which also served as post offices, were the de facto civic centers of remotely populated areas. They were places to play checkers (on overturned empty cracker barrels), whittle, discuss local issues, and share news and gossip. In winter, people would gather around potbellied stoves. In summer, they’d fan themselves on the porch. Rural folk were unpretentious and their interactions were folksy and informal. The philosophizing that took place over those cracker barrels would have been plain and simple and everyone would be entitled to render an opinion.
The next chain to promote themselves as folksy community gathering spaces was Starbucks.
They used the term third place to position themselves as social spaces where neighbors congregate. Harold Schultz didn’t invent the term, nor did he originate the concept, which is why Ray Oldenberg called Starbucks a pseudo third place that pretends to be a community center.
Why is Ray’s opinion important?
Because Oldenberg was the inventor of the term third place, using it to describe social surroundings apart from our two primary social environments, home (our first place) and work (our second place). An urban sociologist, Oldenberg believed that community hangouts are essential breeding grounds for social connections and community vitality, as well as for seeing ourselves as a small part of something larger that has meaning and purpose in our lives.
So why is Starbucks not an authentic “third place?”
To Oldenberg, Starbucks is about consumption, not community. It is missing some of the core definitions of a third place, most notably real diversity and a place where the main activity is ongoing informal discussions where everyone is expected to contribute. Married for 60 years, the Yoders have visited all 648 Cracker Barrel stores. They say “It’s nice when you’re out there driving that there’s a place that can be so much like home when you’re away from home.”
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