The Great Good Place… Seattle version


Okay, if someone let me design my perfect bookstore, what would it look like?

First, I’d want to pedal to it, so I’d put a decent stand for locking bikes, covered from rain of course, right by the front door. Maybe keep a stand pump handy in case anyone gets a flat. I love reading outside, so let’s include a patio section for a coffee and a book en plein air.

Inside the entrance, I’d expect to find a good selection of magazines—local, national and international—literary journals, maybe a few zines. Some tables with new releases: hardback and soft, fiction and nonfiction. A big corner devoted to kids’ books.

I’ve always been a used book-buyer, so a good chunk of the store ought to be devoted to recycling other people’s past purchases, with a big desk at the back to make it easier for sellers to unload their offerings. In our era of infinite opinions and online retailers, a bookstore only matters if it’s got a personal touch, so I’ll let employees hand-write recommendations for their favourite books and leave their comments tucked as teasers between the shelves. Teachers, of course, are the most noble profession, so we’ll give them a 20% discount.

All that designing has made me hungry, so I’ll want a place to eat. Make it a cafe, with hot lunches and a dinner menu, great coffee, fresh muffins and other treats. Offer traditional cafe seating, but add a kids play area and then another section, next to the windows and also looking out across the bookstore, where people are encouraged to hang out, chat, read, work on their laptops. (Free wireless, of course.) Encourage them to stay. Make them feel so at home that they wheel in their double-stroller and  dog.

Anything else? Well, throw a whole series of readings and talks and musical events. And there’s the downstairs… let’s turn it into a bar with 15 beers on tap, because, hey, I already belong to a “Beer & Books” group, so the guys might as well have a special place to hang out.

Oh wait, what’s that? Somebody already built my literary utopia?

So they did. And in Seattle, no less.
I flew across the Strait last Friday to have shabbat dinner at the Ravenna Kibbutz (more on that later). Because of my arrival time, I had about six hours to kill before dinner began. I tried to scope out the closest library, but it was closed—on a Friday! (Budget cutbacks.) And that’s when I discovered the Ravenna Third Place bookstore (and cafe and pub), just blocks from the kibbutz, and a perfect complement to my research into community values and communal spaces.

This unique twist on the bookstore/cafe combo has been explicitly designed around the idea, by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, of the “third place”—the communal space that is neither work nor home, that is free or inexpensive, accessible and inclusive. A place to kibitz. In his book The Great Good Place, Oldenburg describes these civic sites and establishments as centres of “informal public life”, where networks of affiliation can develop and creativity can spark.

Inspired by this vision, The Ravenna Third Place’s website and bookmarks welcome newcomers to a “deliberate and intentional creation of a community of booklovers. A fun and comfortable place to browse, linger, lounge, relax, read, eat, laugh, play, talk, listen and just watch the world go by.”

I did most of the above. I nursed a latte for close to four hours, wrote in my journal, chatted to a couple of the servers (I’d wanted to interview the owner, but he wasn’t in), daydreamed, people-watched and eavesdropped on everyone around me. One young guy was doing animation on his laptop. Another middle-aged man was studying Chinese on his computer. Behind me, a young university student (from Arkansas via Alaska) was meeting for the first time a pastor who organized a fellowship group she was curious about. (Yes, we were in Richard Florida’s “creative class” Seattle, but also George W. Bush’s evangelical America.)

Finally, I browsed the bookshelves and went home (after my “educator’s discount”) with a used copy of Amos Oz’s Elsewhere, Perhaps and the new paperback edition of Sarah Bakewell’s inventive How to Live.


I returned to Victoria wishing I had my own Third Place so close by. (There are a few cafe/bookstores around town, but none as ambitious as this.) If you build it, I will come. And stay for hours apparently.