What’s the Future for Georgetown’s Third Places?

Last week, GM broke the news that Barnes and Noble had given up its lease and was closing down. Many people are not happy about it.

Why the closing of a large chain store struck a particular chord with Georgetowners (and others) is that it was a perfect “Third Place”. This term, coined by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, described those places in a community where people come together outside their home (first place) or work (second place). They can be bookstores, cafes, pubs, libraries, whatever. To Oldenburg, and those that follow him, these places are most essential parts of that community.

What made Barnes and Noble a particularly great Third Place was that it offered Georgetowners and visitors alike a place to escape from the heat or the cold (or just the crowds), but you didn’t have to pay anything to use it.
Many of the classic Third Places continue to exist in Georgetown–the Marvelous Market seating area jumps to mind–but as restaurants like Nathans get swapped for tourist traps like Serendipity, the price has gone up while the “community” quality has fallen.

Oddly enough, if there’s one store that GM’s seen that can fill the “just want to browse out of the elements without buying something” void it’s the Apple Store. Every time GM goes in there, he sees people wander in there just to play with the toys for a while before wandering out (which 9 times out of ten is exactly what GM’s doing). It’s not quite the same thing a browsing great literature (or a great magazine rack), but it’s the least technology can do for us after killing our bookstore.

Of course there’s no greater (or cheaper) Third Place in Georgetown than our great library. Long may it reign.



Filed under Around Town

12 responses to “What’s the Future for Georgetown’s Third Places?

  1. For those of you who have yet to visit the reborn Peabody Room on the third floor of the Georgetown Neighborhood Library, I encourage you to visit during my open hours on Mondays and the second and fourth Saturday, 9:30-5:30, as well as Thursdays from 1-9. The Peabody Room is a special collections and archives of Georgetown neighborhood history. We have books, house histories, maps, photographs, manuscripts, newspapers, artworks, and artifacts…all on Georgetown. Researchers or those just plain curious to see the room are welcome. Students wanting a quiet place to study are welcome to use the first or second floor. My phone number is 202.727.0233.

  2. Cynthia Anthony

    Barnes and Noble’s closing is a real tragedy. Bad news indeed. Now where will late shoppers and stocking stuffers go on Christmas Eve?! And where else can we go with our well-behaved dogs in tow? Some other places where it is fun to go in and browse, whether buying or “just looking” (which can easily turn into buying, as we all know!) are Random Harvest and The Phoenix. And while they’re not places to just hang out, you almost always see neighbors at Scheele’s and Morgan’s. Also, local houses of worship are also important “third places” to lots of people…. not only the religious services, but also the work done on the soup kitchens, overnight shelters in the winter, and other volunteer activities; as well as concert series and so on.

  3. RNM

    I always thought third places were something like the bar from that old show “Cheers”…not some sort of store where you perpetually browse. Granted the Starbucks in the Barnes and Noble was an example of the new version of third places…but really will the requirement to walk a block up the street to the next Starbucks be such a hardship?

    Bookstores…they had a good run. They are dead businesses. I can order a book on Amazon today and get it tomorrow. Or I could go online and download it to an iPad or some other less sophisticated device that allows for e-reading and have it in seconds. Less time than it would take to wait to check out at the Barnes and Noble. Yes, the ability to browse and discover in the flesh has vanished…but it has been replaced with something far better. I can browse online for far more options than any individual store can stock, I can get referred to other books with the “people who bought/read this also liked this” sort of feature. I can also get reviews from a myriad of sources not just what the publisher throws on the book jacket. Then again, personally I prefer audio books…and my current recommendation would be “God No!” by Penn Jillette. It is an amusing, lighthearted yet sentimental exploration of one person’s atheistic beliefs.

    As for why some places fold and others succeed, it is called business. If you can’t run a successful restaurant at one of the best locations in the city despite all of your socialite ties with the community…then maybe you shouldn’t be there and we shouldn’t bemoan the loss of failures. Be it a failed business plan or a dying industry, things change and that is the only certainty.

  4. Joan Kennan

    Do you have any idea of when Barnes & Noble will close?? I always counted on it for most of my Xmas shopping, as well as Xmas cards.

  5. Alison

    @ Joan Kennan – I believe it’s closing at year end 2011. So, perhaps you might want to do your Christmas shopping a little early this year!

  6. Carol Joynt

    Ok, I’ll grant you the Apple store is a cool place where you can go and play with Mac products, but beyond that, GM, it offers nothing else. Whereas, B&N offered so much: books, magazines, coffee, research, hang out, music, rendezvous, safe harbor from the elements. It was a feast.

    Apple staff don’t warm to just “hanging out.” They will keep asking questions.

    Again, Vornado (and I have so many expletives I could use as a prefix to their name) could give B&N rent free tenancy at that effing eyesore Mall, and for the first time in ages people who live here would actually go there. Seriously, not a bad idea. I don’t think Forever 21 or Target define Georgetown, but B&N tapped into the community in a nice way, providing the gathering place, like the once upon a time lobby lounge at The Four Seasons. Having it at the Mall would benefit the discount stores.

    And as for the “socialite” swipe from some anonymous commenter. Trashing me as a “socialite” is as idiotic as saying that because I’m on a hospital board I can perform open heart surgery. Get over it. Nathans is closed, gone and over.

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  8. James

    My sadness is tempered by the realization that businesses exist to make money, and this location didn’t make enough. I’m as sad as anyone to see them go, but I also own a Kindle, buy from Amazon, read magazines online, and frequently exited B&N without buying a thing. And I don’t think I’m alone.

  9. Topher

    RNM: I removed your comment since it was just one long ad hominen attack. Feel free to comment, but I will continue to erase comments that are, in my opinion, over the line.

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  12. I’m shopping the deals at B&N while I can, but point out the difference between B&N and, for instance, Politics and Prose, where the staff are so helpful and knowledgeable. I still prefer human interaction over an algorithm telling me I might enjoy some other book, and the serendipitous find on the next shelf of a subject matter or author I didn’t know I was interested in – something that Amazon still doesn’t know about me (just wait). While these filters are often helpful, they’re not always – the same could be said for the New York Times “recommending” that I read certain articles. Now if the library could get some art on the walls, or open a coffee shop…

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