Malcolm Jolley: An ode to the third place

The third place, where people can gather that's neither home nor work, is essential to community
Residents drink beer at a bar after work hours in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Vernon Yuen/AP Photo.

A large café closed around the corner from where I live in mid-town Toronto. It took up two storefronts and was fronted by large floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street. I would walk by it several times a week because it was housed underneath my gym, and I would often see friends and neighbours through the windows, working on laptops by themselves or having a coffee and a chat for some kind of meeting.

I don’t know the intimacies of the café’s business or its troubles, other than an eviction notice on the door said the owners owed a couple hundred thousand in back rent. On the Summerhill stretch of Yonge Street, that might not take too long to accumulate. What the closure made me think of was the idea of the “third place” and that the regulars who populated it, especially in this era of remote work, would miss it.

The idea of the third place, where people can gather that’s neither home nor work, was developed formally by the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the late 1980s and ’90s. But the concept of the third place was popularized in physical manifestation by Howard Schultz, the president of Starbucks who led the chain to its explosive growth in the final decade and a half of the 20th century.

Schultz positioned Starbucks as an American version of the Italian espresso bar (or just “bar”, since most serve alcohol too), and serve as a meeting place for all sorts of occasions in a village or city neighbourhood. In Anglo-Celtic Europe, the traditional third place is the “public house”; or the “local”, which performs the same function. It’s where you go to hang out.

Churches, of course, are also third places. And gyms or sports clubs allow for that function too. In warmer climates, a town square is also a natural place for people to habitually cognate outside of the pressures and obligations of family and work life.

Back in Toronto, despite our recent loss, my neighbourhood still has lots of coffee shops. Some are closer to in-and-out Italian bars selling mostly take-out, others more inviting of laptop workers. It also has a few pubs, and I am a regular at one, where I meet people or take some reading to do over a casual lunch or a beer in the late afternoon once or twice a week.

Part of the charm of going to a place where everybody knows your name is that things mostly stay the same there, so change, when it comes, is noted. Not long ago I spotted a new red tap behind the bar and was pleased to see it read in white lettering “Oast House” and ordered a pint of the clean drinking Pap’s Pilsner.

An oast house was the building in damp British breweries where hops were dried in kilns. The Niagara Oast House Brewers is a brewery just outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake that was established by three employees of the Inniskillin winery in 2012. At first, it was a kind of local secret and a treat to try their artisan beers on trips to wine country. Trying the Oast pilsner brought back memories of wine trips and the maybe not-so-well-known relationship between wine-making and beer.

I fear many outsiders to the wine trade think it’s full of snobs. It may have more wine snobs than other groups, but it’s the same trade that makes, sells, and writes about all the wines, so in my experience the true snobs are mostly consumers who can afford to buy only expensive wines. As I have written before, if all you drink is fancy wine, then you’ll miss out on some simple pleasures, and most of us in the thick of it try and keep our minds open.

But even if you spend a day tasting through beautifully made wines, or especially if you have spent a day tasting through any kind of wine, few things taste as good at the end of it as a beer. Wine is high in acid, which is why it almost always benefits from being served with food.

With some sour exceptions, beer is generally low in acid and slakes thirst while camping the palate. They say it takes a case of beer to make a case of wine, and I can see why after a day of constantly tasting the product and physical labour in the vineyard or cellar, many if not most winemakers and crew would welcome a cold one after a long day. 

The wine press, by and large, likes beer too. Some writers also cover beer and are aficionados in their own right. Others, like me, just like a break and enjoy the product without thinking too much about it, especially after a long day of tasting. On my last trip to Alba, to taste the newly released Barolo, Barbaresco and other Langhe wines, a few of my colleagues and I discovered a bar devoted to birre artigianale near our hotel.

The bar, which does not seem to have survived the pandemic, soon became an unofficial canteen for the foreign press. Cold glasses of IPA were bought between colleagues who’d spent the day swilling and spitting young, highly tannic wines. Sure enough, we discovered a few winemakers in there too one night, and I was able to arrange a winery visit on my free day based on the meeting.

It was our own impromptu third place between work and home; a place to drink a beer and talk about wine after the busy events of the day, during that time when small conversations happen and life is mostly lived.

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