At some point during the Third Place’s early years the public began to understand that Everton Overly had quietly struck a deal with his customers without anything official being said about it.
The future of any restaurant depends on its performance – quality of the meals, parking, decor, price, selection and aura. Should the operator get it right in all of these fields then the chances of success were good. In a world of rampant consumerism, it was all about the customer and the operation that didn’t understand that had already lost.
Except Dad didn’t really believe it. A restaurant in his mind wasn’t just about serving food but, rather, a public space where contribution was expected. At one point he placed on the back of all the menus something he called The Rules of Engagement. It wasn’t hard to tell where he was coming from.
THIS IS NEUTRAL GROUND – THERE IS ROOM FOR ALL OPINIONS EXCEPT FOR THOSE THAT DEMEAN THE HUMAN SPIRIT.
THIS IS LEVEL GROUND – THIS IS AN INCLUSIVE PLACE WHERE ALL ARE WELCOME, REGARDLESS OF THOSE THINGS THAT MIGHT OTHERWISE DIVIDE US. WE ARE ALL EQUAL BUT WE ARE NOT ALL THE SAME.
THIS ISTALKATIVE GROUND – THE ESSENCE OF THIS PLACE ISN’T FOOD OR MERE FRIENDLINESS, BUT CONVERSATION. THIS IS WHERE DEMOCRACY SPREADS ITS WINGS AND COMMUNITY SOARS.
THIS IS AN ACCESSIBLE GROUND – NOTHING CAN BE TRULY COMMUNITY BASED THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT EASY FOR PEOPLE WITH CHALLENGES TO VISIT.
THIS IS A PLAYFUL GROUND- FOOD AND DRINK ARE DESIGNED TO MAKE US LAUGH AND CELEBRATE ONE ANOTHER IN COMMUNITY STYLE.
THIS IS OPEN GROUND- WITH NEW PLACES TO DISCOVER, EXPLORE AND BUILD UPON
THIS IS YOUR HOME AWAY FROM HOME AS LONG AS YOU ARE HERE SO PLEASE TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD YOUR FAMILY. AND IF WE DO IT RIGHT, MAYBE ALL OF US – TOGETHER – WILL FIND THE FOURTH PLACE – WHERE CITIZENS AND THEIR REPRESENTATIVES GATHER TO PURSUE BETTER COMMUNITY TOGETHER AND NOT JUST TALK.
This looked fashionably corny on paper, but it formed the essence, atmosphere and expectation of the Third Place. And the last sentence held out the possibility that there was something new to discover, a new place to be, if people held one another in respect. It was all very intriguing and somehow most customers felt they played key roles in the mystery.
At some point Dad told me that the “Third Place” wasn’t his idea, but that it had come from someone named Ray Oldenburg who was looking for some term to describe the kind of location that permits citizens to be the best versions of themselves. If he had told me years earlier I would never have understood the meaning, but after a lengthy time watching Dad’s customers quietly conform to the better angels of their natures, I instinctively understood how it worked.
“It all seems kind of old-fashioned – kind of like living in the past,” I noted to him one day. I suddenly fretted I maybe had offended or hurt him, but was relieved to see the grin begin spreading across his tanned features.
“That could be why many older folks visit us so often,” he responded, “but how do we explain all those 20 to 30-year-olds? Seems to me they aren’t coming to revisit the past but to kind of unknowingly rebuild the future.”
I didn’t really understand it all then, but over time it came to make more sense. He was perhaps banking on the hope that his customers were searching for more meaning in collective life than perhaps they even understood. I could be wrong on that, but I don’t think so, since Dad himself seemed to be in that place already and enjoyed an unusual frankness with his patrons.
Later, while in community college, I learned that the Third Place was actually a concept as well as a physical space. The diversity of such spaces was extensive: community centres, senior’s centres, bars and pubs, coffee shops, stores, malls, hair salons, barbers, YM/YWCAs, houses of faith, schools, colleges, universities, bookstores, parks, neighbourhood homes and yards, block parties, barbecues, and, of course, restaurants – anyplace where citizens gathered and conversed.
In more recent years there has been an abundance of online, or “virtual” third places that supposedly substitute for personal gathering places, but Dad never saw it that way – something that was to come back and plague him on numerous occasions. He was convinced that third places helped people to break away from the social status boundaries they encountered in their everyday lives – job levels, racial distinctions, economic strata, even gender distinctions. He believed, ardently, that when people escaped such constructs and simply gathered that they would inevitably establish their own norms that would usually include everyone – especially those he called the “regulars,” who he viewed as the true backbone of any gathering.
It didn’t always work out like that, but more often than not it did. The regulars inevitably came to understand that they were a key part of a great experiment and Dad believed that they would be effective moderators of any gatherings. They responded to that expectation by actively involving themselves in discussions in ways they would never have done in any other establishment. No one led, per se, but they facilitated conversations in ways that brought people together as opposed to dividing them along typical lines. They actually got pretty good at it over time.
“Canadians have grown accustomed to being content with the ideal home instead of the ideal city,” he said to me once and I think he was attempting to reverse that process.
Everton Overly saw his business as more than just some financial enterprise; for him it was about recapturing a spirit – not the past but of our essence – that had been lost in the country’s pursuit of prosperity and material things. It formed an attempt at bringing people back to social awareness. He would say things like, “Say what you think, but be careful,” or, “avoid topics not of general interest to everybody,” and the customers, especially the regulars again, took it on as a collective challenge. It wasn’t social engineering but it definitely was an effort at community mobilization that became something of a recruiting tool.
Next chapter – A New Concept