The Economics of Coffee Shops
by Keighton Allen
Between the ages of 5-12, I spent several weeks of the summer on my great grandparent’s farm in a town satirically named “El Dorado” which is situated in the middle of Kansas. This town was anything but the “golden land”, but it was the first place I experienced the concept of a “third place” and place attachment.
Every morning while in El Dorado, I would accompany my great grandpa to his usual rendezvous, “The Coffee Shop”, a dingy Coastal gas station and convenience store (ironically Coastal Corporation was acquired by El Paso Corporation in 2001). My great grandpa and his 70+ year-old friends would sit at the booths by the windows and talk about the weather, crop forecasts, and the Powerball, while I scanned the rows of junk food for a snack to enjoy, while coloring and drawing pictures.
The significance of this particular gas station in this small, wilting oil town in Kansas explains why a young girl would willing go to a convenience store and sit for hours with old men, listening to topics that were years ahead of her comprehension. “The Coffee Shop” was a third place, “a designation of a public place that hosts the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work” (Oldenburg, 1999). Third places provide a place to connect with the people in communities as well as a place to exchange ideas and news. For me, this grimy Coastal was a way to engage and be connected to community I wasn’t originally from. Not to mention, the alternative was being cooped up in the house, watching Young and the Restless with my great grandma. The hustle and bustle of “The Coffee Shop” could not afford to be missed. Observing people go about their business and listening to the background conversations of familiar strangers helped create a bond between this town and me.
A study, “The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical Factors Influencing Place Attachment” by Dr. Lisa Waxman investigated place attachment through the characteristics of third places, specifically, coffee shops. Dr. Waxman’s study found that each coffee shop had a unique social climate and culture that contributed to their host community’s sense of belonging, territoriality and ownership, productivity and personal growth, opportunity for socialization, and networking. Her research determined that there is a positive correlation between length of patronage to a coffee shop and a patron’s sense of attachment to their community.
Many patrons interviewed by Dr. Waxman responded that their local coffee shop was a place they went if they wanted to feel productive. For many students, a coffee shop is an alternative to the library. Interviews revealed that working in the coffee shop often allowed professionals to focus on a specific project without the distractions that would be found at home or office. Additionally, many people associated their patronage at their local coffee shop with their happiness with living in the community.
Because of these findings, it is imperative that local coffee shops remain in businesses throughout Paso del Norte communities. It is not my intention to discriminate against Starbucks, but when they become established in an area, they put many mom and pop shops out of business. All Starbucks have similar layouts and environments and lack a diverse culture that relates to their local, host communities. Mom and pop coffee shops provide a unique flavor to a neighborhood, which is what encourages place attachment for many patrons. The disappearance of local coffee shops could lead to a decline in community engagement and connection.
The absence of a sense of belonging to a community could be tragic to Paso del Norte neighborhoods. When people feel that they don’t belong or have no sense of connection to their neighbors, they become alienated. Alienation from neighbors can lead to an increase in personal depression and crime rates in a community. When third places, like coffee shops, begin disappearing, their advantages are lost. Without third places, the population of a community could witness a decline in productivity, growth, and ultimately, happiness. Multiple studies illustrate a positive relationship between personal productivity, happiness, and economic growth. A 2012 World Happiness Report stated people in the economically-challenged regions are more likely to be unhappy because of infrastructure problems like, “slow Internet connection or coffee purchased to go. The central finding is that the most important factor influencing happiness, is not income, but rather social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption, and the degree of personal freedom.” (Richard Layard, 2012). Each of these community aspects are influenced by the number and accessibility of third places.
My personal story of experiences with third places, explicitly coffee shops, confirms these findings. I looked forward to spending time in El Dorado every summer, not just to visit my great grandparents, but also because I began to identify with the local community and the familiar strangers I met at “The Coffee Shop”. When I moved from Kansas to El Paso to attend UTEP, I met some of my best friends at local coffee shops, like Kinley’s. Feelings of homesickness soon faded as I engaged more often with the Kern neighborhood and UTEP community. I credit El Paso’s inimitable third places with my sense of belonging to UTEP and the El Paso region. The Paso del Norte region’s personality and culture are defined by these third places and will continue to encourage the regions sense of belong and connectedness as long as they are an active part of the community.