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Can Retail Space be an Extension of the Public Realm? A Look at Seattle’s Third Place Books

“[Third Places] are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”

-Ray Oldenburg

Ravenna Third Place Book store | Image by Paul David Gibson

Ravenna’s Third Place Books location | Image by Paul David Gibson

For sociologist Ray Oldenburg, each of us needs three places: the home, the workplace or school, and beyond that, a third place – a public space on neutral ground where people can gather and interact while experiencing a sense of ease and belonging. In his book The Great Good Place (1991), Oldenburg demonstrates how and why these places are essential to community and public life, arguing that bars, cafés, general stores, and other “third places” are central to local democracy and community vitality.

Seattle’s Third Place Books was named after Oldenburg’s idea, and the bookstore’s success shows that when retailers put communities first, they can thrive in both good economic times and bad. In both of its locations – Lake Forest Park and Ravenna – Third Place Books incorporates the best elements of the surrounding neighborhood into its design and business model. Along with piles of books, the stores also contain cafés, restaurants, and taverns that attract users of all ages, interests, and backgrounds. The common areas host community programs such as college jazz concerts, game nights, knitting clubs, farmers markets, story hours, and tai chi lessons, while meeting rooms in the back offer gathering spaces for more private activities like study and support groups, or foreign language and computer lessons.

The role of the physical store in an increasingly virtual retail environment

At its original Lake Forest Park location, Third Place Books helps oversee a 7,500 square foot indoor space, called “the Commons,” which hosts everything from family game nights and exercise classes to health screenings and school plays. Growing an audience and drawing a crowd takes more than simply building a stage; it involves extensive outreach, setup, and coordination efforts. When the store opened in 1998, bookstore staff received so many programming ideas from the community that they soon recognized the need for a dedicated manager of the space.

The store’s current management system includes one entity to run day-to-day operations and another separate nonprofit to organize events. This second group adopted the name “Friends of Third Place Commons,” and despite its modest staffing and budget, the group helps put on over 1,000 events each year. Their funding comes from various sources including the shopping center’s landlord; member dues; farmers market tent fees; state, local, and philanthropic grants; and local government funding from the King County Culture Foundation. This diverse mix of stakeholders helps sustain the group even when certain funding sources are not available.

While the store’s Ravenna location is smaller, it also hosts all kinds of regular events, like book clubs and author readings or science and tech talks in the downstairs pub. Making up for lost square footage, the space has a flexible floor plan that allows these events to complement regular operations. Movable bookcases can be rearranged quickly, and a permeable edge to the adjoining café allows seating to expand during busy times and gatherings.

The established line of shared ownership and responsibility within both stores helps management address both the challenges and opportunities posed by a shared space—all of which is governed by the idea that flexibility is the key to creating an attractive and sustainable shared environment for everyone.

Image by J Brew

Image by J Brew, Flickr Creative Commons

The “double bottom line” of building community and running a small business

According to managing partner Rob Sindelar, there are two models for bookstores that have proven viable in a competitive 21st century retail environment: First, the small, neighborhood bookstore that becomes hyper-connected to its community. Focus on serving residents in trade areas sometimes no greater than a 10-block radius, these stores can become everyday destinations for regular patrons. Sindelar cites BookCourt, Word Bookstore, and Greenlight Books in Brooklyn as exemplars of this approach. Greenlight, for instance, hosts diverse events and even a local adult softball league, but even more significant is its financing structure, which relied on a “Community Lender Program,” in which individuals loaned the store $1,000 or more to help cover over $70,000 in capital costs. Because of this crowdsourced funding, as of 2014, Greenlight operates debt-free.

Third Place Books embodies this localist ethos. As Sindelar explains, it all starts with a bookstore; but to ultimately succeed, the location must become a real third place able to capitalize on the local population. Sindelar knows the groups that use the store and the times at which they visit, from the college students on weekday nights to science geeks on tech trivia night at the Pub to the “stroller crowd” and cyclist groups on the weekends. Worsening traffic also influences residents’ decision to shop locally—more than a trendy ideal, it is a practical choice that saves time and energy while keeping money circulating within the community.

The second model for successful bookstores is harder to replicate for newcomers: the giant, locally-owned enterprise with a regionally recognized and valued brand. These behemoths, such as the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and Strand Books in Manhattan, have navigated the challenges of the e-tail boom, changing neighborhoods, and rent obligations.

At the heart of both of these models is the idea of “experiential retail,” which treats shopping as an activity, outing, or lifestyle choice rather than simply an errand. As the rise of online retailers like eBay and Amazon have successfully transferred consumer power from sellers to buyers, the only way to compete is to give shoppers a more experiential component to the buying experience—something that only brick-and-mortar establishments can provide.

Third Place Books prides itself on being a “fun, comfortable, and safe place to browse, linger, lounge, relax, read, eat, laugh, play, talk, listen, and just watch the world go by.” The success of both of its locations, and their devoted patronage, suggests that for physical stores to succeed in an increasingly digital marketplace, they must combine convenience, quality, inspiration, and interaction. In other words, a business model that incorporates the values of place and community is win-win for the business itself and the people it serves.

Image by Thomas Hawk

Image by Thomas Hawk

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