Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Third Place Lost (or Reborn?)

Dateline: 11:45 am March 2, 2011 Filed under:

I was on my way to Starbucks when I found out my local coffee shop, Tillie’s Bean, was closing. Tillie’s was a block away from my house and the closest thing to a “third place” I had. I will miss it. My Walkscore just took a hit.

Let me defend my Starbucks decision. I’m not ashamed to admit I visit, but it is more of a convenience than choice of “third place.” Starbucks is right next to Chipotle in St. Paul’s Highland neighborhood, and I have a weakness for Chipotle (I think they put crack or some other addictive agent in their rice). And until the recent raid of undocumented workers at Chipotle, I liked going to the store in Highland, where the (mostly undocumented) staff was really nice and liked my kids. The Highland Chipotle is attached to a Barnes & Noble, which is attached to a Starbucks with a seamless passage between the two. So when I get a hankerin’, what a great way to get a burrito, browse books and get coffee for the afternoon! The 2.5-mile drive is not bad by suburban standards (and includes the lovely Mississippi River crossing), but by Joe Urban standards, I’ll admit it does feel like heresy. But, if I have to drive, I feel better about making just one stop rather than more – it is simpler with or without kids. I simply wish I lived in a neighborhood that had choices like that within walking distance.

Did my going to Starbucks lead to the closing of Tillie’s Bean? I suppose it had a part. Granted, a benefit of living in the city is there are many choice, and indeed I often made my own coffee at home, and occasionally visit other establishments if I knew they were on my route. But I also visited Tillie’s a fair amount, and used it as a default meeting place with neighbors or colleagues.

I think the closing of Tillie’s is illustrative of a larger issue in my neighborhood, not just the coffee shop itself. One could argue that there just isn’t enough neighborhood support, but I’ve seen successful coffee shops in quieter neighborhoods, so I don’t buy it. A critical issue is Tillie’s had no other complementary retailers on the corner. A sandwich shop or other lunch place or other uses with better synergy would have complemented a coffee shop quite well. A print shop, furniture store and auto repair shop, less so. The combination of lunch place, bookstore and coffee shop attracts me.

So where do we go from here? I’m using my networks and resources in the neighborhood to try and put a buyer and new coffee shop owner together, but short of investing my own money I cannot have much of an impact. But a guy can dream big urban dreams, right? In a perfect world, my little corner will one day include a coffee shop in the former Tillie’s space, and they will have live music Friday nights and give away beer to those who pay a cover, sell the Financial Times on Saturday and the New York Times on Sunday. Also, across the street Trinh’s auto repair will sell to an entrepreneur that opens a garden store/restaurant hybrid. serving organic food. In the old Oak Furniture building, Ann Yin will open her flagship Local D’Lish grocery store and deli, and Tim at TL Graphics will reach out and offer a Kinko’s-style printing and office service to area businesses, including coworking space. A Milio’s sandwich shop wouldn’t hurt, either! Then we’ll be in business!

No place is perfect. I don’t regret not going to Tillie’s more, nor do I regret going to Starbucks and Chipotle (I can’t help it!). But perhaps the loss of one third place is an opportunity to make one that is better. Let’s hope so. I’m sure Chipotle and Starbucks will do just fine without me.

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