In Third Place
Most stores are designed to sell us something. They locate on main drags with iconic logos created by high-powered ad firms. store colors are chosen by experts, music plays to a beat that encourages hunting and gathering, aisles are carefully mapped for monetary feng shui.
Some stores exist by natural law. They are no more planned than a glacial erratic or a swamp. There simply was a human need or a commercial potential that outweighed all the opposing forces, and the store was born.
Obviously, in keeping with the theme of this issue, I’m thinking about general stores, but not exclusively. What makes a general store so necessary and natural is not just the variety of things it sells.
I grew up in a tourist town on the beaches of Northwest Florida and the “general store” to me and my friends was Jimmy’s Newsstand. At the front counter you could purchase from a cornucopia of candies and geegaws, souvenir knives, sunglasses and even live baby alligators. In back, Jimmy’s had the most abundant racks of comic books, monster magazines and paperbacks that an adolescent boy could imagine in his most fevered dreams. Truth be told, I had at least one vivid dream about finding a cardboard box of all my most desired back issues of Marvel comics out on the street in front of Jimmy’s, just waiting to be claimed by the first kid to walk by.
If my friends and I needed to meet downtown for a movie or adventure, the place to connect was Jimmy’s Newsstand. We didn’t have a fancy social science word for it, but it was our “third place” — our hangout, our home away from home.
Of course, for a generation or two of kids, the “third place” was the mall. That bastion of hangouts still offers its air-conditioned embrace to people, but in savvy communities, the downtowns are being organized to also invite creative loafing and to provide gathering spots for different age groups.
My kids grew up with the corner store as an extension of the family pantry. If our snack or soda or ice cream supply dried up, there was always Ordway’s Market. Ordway’s burned down about eight years ago and was rebuilt as Cimo’s Market. We’ve almost stopped calling it Ordway’s, but not quite.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that what we call a general store is really a kind of an invisible thing. It was built to provide a certain service but is relied upon for something more, something personal.
We can be lured by Madison Avenue sales tactics to spend our money on name brands in shiny big-box stores, but there are some special places to shop and meet that we just agree should exist and then, as if by a sheer force of nature, they do.