The Sunday morning crowd was just beginning to stir as I sat down to my cup of Starbucks coffee. Dave Matthews played softly in the background as a woman in a baseball cap and walking shoes passed quickly by, her dog running happily beside her. A five year-old boy, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, eagerly rummaged through the contents of the toy basket as his mother read the Sunday paper in a plush armchair beside him. I looked out the window watching the traffic light at Libby and Grove cycle monotonously from green to red, a few scattered cars passing beneath it.
It may sound oh, so corporate, but I must confess . . . I love Starbucks. I have for years. I can’t really remember the first time I ever went to one, but I can tell you that there was always one nearby everywhere I lived in D.C. My personal favorite was the Starbucks in Cleveland Park, a pleasant, tree-lined neighborhood near the National Zoo in Northwest D.C. During the week it served as a morning pit stop for busy professionals on their way to work. At nights, the crowd was trendier, more alternative, and musicians and other artists performed regularly. On weekends, it was a welcome gathering spot for everyone in the neighborhood, a place to read the paper, catch up with friends, and learn the goings on for the week ahead.
So I was hardly surprised this past Sunday when I saw a flyer by the cash register entitled “Let’s Meet at Starbucks.” Adorned with a cheerful graphic of four twentysomethings gathered around an outdoor table, the flyer touted Starbucks as “the place to meet up with all your friends” and “the place to find out what’s going on around town.” The flyer also listed two websites to check out: Letsmeetatstarbucks.com, to “pick an event and get the gang together; and meetup.com, where you can “join a group or start your own with your friends.”
When I first read the flyer, it seemed to me that Starbucks was trying to go online with what I had previously experienced in Cleveland Park, where the coffee shop had organically grown (no pun intended) into a community meeting place. No such luck. The “Let’s Meet at Starbucks” address just redirected me to the Starbucks home page, which mentioned nothing about group or community meetings. The meetup.com site, on the other hand, was simply an external, non-Starbucks site that was basically a signup list for online interest groups such as book clubs. Nothing whatsoever to do with Starbucks. So in the end, the promotional flyer was long on style, woefully short on substance, and was meant only to add a splash of color to the Starbucks counter.
But it got me thinking. Going online to facilitate community and neighborhood meetings seems like an ideal use of the Internet’s unique information characteristics. I mean, if the Internet can allow a geographically diverse group like e2 to arrange nodermeets on a fairly regular basis, it should be able to handle local meetings with ease, right?
It doesn’t seem so simple, though. To be sure, Starbucks could have put more effort into its “Let’s Meet at Starbucks” promotion, but the fact remains that people seem to prefer the real and organic to the virtual when reaching group consensus on local gatherings. From what I hear, text messaging has made virtual organization of group meetings possible on a near-instantaneous basis, but I’m neither trendy nor hip enough to know much about that first-hand. In any event, the resulting spontaneous meetings seem to be of the ad hoc variety, better examples of swarm-like behavior than the regular, reliable meeting place I recalled from Cleveland Park.
So what defines the common meeting places that Jefferson so eloquently referred to as the “secular temples of the community?” In his case, he was talking about the courthouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, a building that housed religious services on Sundays in his time, and was thus a religious temple of the community, as well. The rest of the week, though, it served as a common meeting place where business was transacted, notices posted, and appointments kept, much like the Forum in ancient Rome. Today, the Charlottesville courthouse no longer occupies the place of prominence it once did, but the area around it -- Courthouse Square -- still serves as a focal point for the community.
Other public buildings -- libraries, town halls, and the like -- often serve as gathering places as well, relying as they do on their status as public institutions to attract participants. More interesting are the private entities that perform a similar function, typically attracting a narrower, “affinity”-based clientele. Starbucks is a prime example, although not all Starbucks qualify. A coffee shop in downtown D.C., surrounded by office and government buildings, typically attracts a crowd too transitory to gel into a community of its own. In Cleveland Park, however, nestled comfortably between the elegantly shabby Uptown Theater and the ever-popular Four Provinces Irish pub, the Starbucks was able to attract and keep a sufficiently regular crowd to maintain a stable place for itself in the neighborhood.
Bookstores often occupy a similar place, providing a convenient spot to gather and meet, often in conjunction with coffee shops of their own. Higher up the socio-economic scale, country clubs, art galleries, museums, and university clubs serve the same function, while bars, pool halls and public parks stake out similar turf at the sketchier end of the spectrum. But in all these cases, the essential elements remain the same -- a convenient physical space, an associated common activity, and a presence sufficient to maintain a critical level of public interest and attendance.
So let’s all meet at Starbucks (or an alternative indie coffee house), shall we?