I would think that the introvert in me would love America’s coffeehouses (when I use this term, I am referring to the shops that most Americans experience — places like Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Dunkin’ Donuts).  They’re small, usually fairly quiet, lounging customers usually have headphones on typing on a laptop, and no one talks to you until you go get a cup of coffee or a refill.  But I don’t love them.  Let me count the ways.

1.) When I describe them as “usually fairly quiet,” that’s ignoring the sound of making the lattes and smoothies which, at worst, can be severely irritating.

2.) I like being left alone to some degree, but in today’s coffeehouses, I can’t avoid noticing the missed storytelling opportunities.  Each person has an intricately woven set of experiences that every other person in the world can learn from.  Where else in society do we have the opportunity to organize these experience-based exchanges?

3.) These chain coffeehouses are usually surrounded by strip malls, big box stores and found on four lane highways.  This restricts the building of any kind of community, and it deteriorates the economic health of our small town walking districts.

When I was first thinking about this topic, I consulted a book titled The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg.  The book reviews the importance of the “third place” in our civic health, a place apart from home and work that allows us to relax and enjoy the company of others.  In addition to coffeehouses, we do have other places like hair salons and taverns that serve as third places, but, as Oldenburg writes in the book, coffeehouses have always had the intellectually social side to them.  Most of the chain coffeehouses that we have today do fit some of Oldenburg’s “third place” characteristics.

But what if we tinkered with some things?

For example, what if the focus of the coffeehouse was not the beverage, but the conversation?  What if the “coffeehouse” became a “commons”?  Starbucks initially was started with its focus on the environment within the store (after realizing selling just coffee beans was a bit bland).  Howard Schultz, the founder of the company, got the urge to start Starbucks when he visited the streetside Italian cafes, was impressed with their environments, and wanted to bring it back to the United States.  But the difference between this idea and between Schultz’s wish is the injection of interpersonal communication into this mission.  This commons should be a place that welcomes everyone into the collective conversation.  Oldenburg writes a bit about these qualities found in the London coffeehouses of yesteryear in his book.

In the era of its reign . . . the coffeehouse was often referred to as the Penny University.  A penny was the price of admission to its store of literary and intellectual flavors.  Twopence was the price of a cup of coffee; a pipe cost a penny; a newspaper was free.  The coffeehouse of the seventeenth century was the precursor of the daily newspaper and home delivery of mail . . . Whether on a regular schedule or not, many Londoners dropped into the coffeehouse several times a day in order to keep abreast of the news.  Customarily, the literate would read aloud from the house’s newspapers, tracts, and broadsides so that the illiterate could digest the contents and discuss the issues of the day (185).

The focus definitely was centered on the dialogue.  The conversation, as you read, was set up like a course (the Penny University).  You got the news, but you also had the opportunity to digest it, to play with it, with other people just as interested as you.  I emphasized “discuss” above because it was not enough even for the illiterate to know the news — they were expected to discuss it too.  The newspaper was free, so there was an obvious focus on substantive conversation.  How much better could our society be if we had discussions about public events that happened more frequently?  We’d be more educated, more prepared to perform our civic duties.  And because the focus is centered on the dialogue and not the beverage, the fancy drinks of Starbucks and Caribou Coffee turn to a more quietly made coffee.

What if this outlet was more centrally located?  What if it sucked more people into the plighted downtown areas many rust belt communities are stuck with?  What if this “commons” served as an incentive to live in these areas?  These commons could be the heart of “walking districts,” the downtowns of tomorrow.  With a burgeoning emphasis on green behavior, these districts could take off and restore the promise of smalltown America.  Improved public dialogue and civic health could result in better school systems, as citizens become more involved in the town’s institutions.  Better education brings more corporations to these towns to set up shop.  It also infuses energy into the town leading to entrepreneurs who are dedicated to the town’s future.

I realize this is a very rough, brainstormy entry.  But when we look at the “common good,” I think we should start in our local communities.  The “common good” can only be appreciated, targeted, and pursued when people are talking, and while we have these fancy technological tools (like this blog), the best communication continues to be face-to-face. Coincidentally, Mike Connery at Future Majority offers this tidbit about Clay Shirkey’s “cognitive surplus” thesis in a comment on the recent volunteerism entry. It fits in quite nicely with this discussion. This “commons” could find incentives that would enable us to get youth to take one more step and invest some of the time spent on the internet in these grounded, substantive conversations.

What do you think of this commons idea?  Is there anything else we can do to reinvigorate the hearts and restore the civic health of our small communities?

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