Thirty years ago this year, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg published The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day (now in its third edition and with a much less compelling subtitle than the original). The book is a celebration of hangouts—of the places that you go only in part because of what’s for sale, far more importantly because you know you’re going to run into some friends and have a conversation, and those friends will introduce you to other friends who will have new and different kinds of conversations. They are social machines, generating and reinforcing connections.
A couple of days ago, I did a book talk at a truly great good place: Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Philadelphia. I got there at two o’clock for my three-thirty reading, and got an iced tea and brownie and sat at the counter. There were thirty-five or so people there, but it was far more active, far more conversational, far more inclusive than any Starbucks you’ll ever see. The place was a continual churn of talk and laughter, people flowing through the narrow aisles between the couches and coffee tables and barstools, people hugging and high-fiving and shaking hands, people asking one another what they were reading and what they recommended. These people were neighbors, in the best possible sense, not merely adjacent to but involved with one another.
Uncle Bobbie’s gave me hope. These kinds of places, and the relationships they foster, really ARE possible. They’re rare, but they aren’t gone. We don’t have to communicate with one another just through Twitter and Instagram; we can be with each other, learn from each other, revise our thinking, make ourselves better.