A slide projector flashed images on the unfinished walls of a narrow storefront in Five Points, some weeks before the formal opening of The Third Place, a coffeehouse. Dean Sauls, painter and pizza slinger from Lilly's, next door, had approached Rich Futrell and Ty Beddingfield during the build-out of the store. He asked if they were interested in showing artwork, and arranged a viewing of his paintings.
When the coffeehouse opened on Nov. 11, 1994, Sauls' work became its first public display. Since then, the walls, ceiling, floor, bathrooms and patio of The Third Place have been adorned with the expressive works of local artists and artisans. Much of the art has been offered for sale, with the coffeehouse acting as the location for closing the transaction between artist and collector, but there has never been a commission collected for providing this service.
The arts world can appear somewhat remote to everyman; many of us do not have the jargon or perspective to feel comfortable visiting a "high-end" gallery, nor are we assured of a warm reception. Yet countless Third Place clients have been introduced to the arts as an accessible thing, via informal artists' lectures, casual reviews from the ever-present artist-comment book and by simply eavesdropping on spirited discussions of the current work. Each first-time buyer represents a special victory for The Third Place in its role as icebreaker for a sometimes chilly arena.
Futrell credits Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place, with planting the seeds that sprouted to become this charming venue. Oldenburg, a sociologist with a longing for lost community, explores the various psycho-social reasons for the attraction people have for the "third place," most often represented in the bars, coffeehouses, and other places where people go to find camaraderie. But the concept, as described by Oldenburg, can only be made manifest by the right mix of personalities and location. Futrell and Beddingfield were dedicated to the notion that a locally owned, locally focused "third place" could be fielded at Five Points. They thrive on the mix of blue-collar, white-collar, priest-collar and dog-collar (check out the Enloe students who debate outside on weeknights) personalities who make up their clientele. Bringing all of these diverse entities together, The Third Place becomes a nightly tapestry, in which each element complements the others.
It did not take long for Futrell and Beddingfield to recognize the rich body of talent that stood across the counter from them day-to-day. That pool of personalities and ideas engaged with the highly creative bunch behind the counter, and arts projects were launched, in a low-key fashion, but at a dizzying pace. The space is used to display artwork, of course. It also provides a community bulletin board, wall space for posters announcing community service and arts-oriented events and a business card exchange table.
More than 100 local artists have had their work featured at 1811 Glenwood Ave. over the last six years. This Hayes-Barton neighborhood establishment is a one-stop shop for visual stimulation, intelligent company and conversation, news of the local arts scene and happenings at the Rialto up the street. Some of the work acts as a fixture in the conduct of the business: The Bean Bar is a one-of-a-kind creation from artist Jason Seale, and metal artists David Benson and Ben Galata have blended their works into the counters and back-bar. The Third Place logo, a stylized arrangement of comfortable chair and table, was the product of ceramic artist Meredith Brickell, who traded it for four years of weekly lunches.
The confluence of talents and interests, on both sides of the bar, has also launched a unique musical project in late 1997. The Third Place produced a CD, Local Honey, a collection of works from two dozen local artists. The music of Semicolon, Hobex, Milagro Saints, The Boy Wonder Jinx, VROOM, Dear Enemy, The Slackmates, and many others were laid down, with recorded coffeehouse chatter between tracks. Original artwork from Jason Seale, Chad Burnette and Corkey Goldsmith graced the covers, front and back. There were 1,000 pressed, and the same number sold throughout the area.
Other collaborations that have germinated in The Third Place's social petri dish are too numerous to recount in detail. They are as varied as pulling together a drumming circle to celebrate an international festival at Wiley International Magnet School, and partnering with the Rialto to screen the work of an area filmmaker, with artist discussion at the coffeehouse after the showing. Local musicians set up most weekends, providing background music to enhance the conversations. Not a day goes by without some number of meetings held, by clientele and staff, to plan a fundraiser or plot an approach to the city council. It is a comfortable, engaging place where good energy can be harnessed and expressed.
The Third Place Alumni Association does not yet exist as a formal entity, but the informal connections between and among former employees represents another aspect of community. You can find alumni at Antfarm, Penland, the N.C. Museum of Art, at universities around the world and spreading the spirit in many large American cities. The energy and sense of community that marked their time at the coffeehouse is radiating out in all directions. Beddingfield and Futrell admit to being somewhat overwhelmed at the success of their joint venture, but their alternative to the chains has struck a chord with people and points to the living truth of the "third place" concept.
Oldenburg is crafting a follow-up work, Third Place Victories, intended to give anecdotal evidence of the importance of the "third place" in communities. Futrell has been asked to provide a chapter, describing The Third Place experience in Raleigh. His reaction to this honor is characteristically humble--with a shake of his head and a shrug of his shoulders, he marvels at the full circle of his own "great good place" experience.