Abstract: Having just returned from two years living in Bulgaria, where outdoor cafés dominate the social life, the author narrates his experiences joining a café community in Fayetteville, Arkansas. What emerges from the study is more than a description of one American café’s social meaning, but insights into the nature of community in the United States.
It was early on a Friday afternoon and no one was at the café, except me sitting outside in the shadow made by the pay phone hanging on the wall over my table. I got up and went inside to get my third cup of coffee. “I’m going to drink the place dry as a part of my charitable campaign against dehydration,” I said joking about my third cup of coffee to the server behind the counter. “It got my uncle, but it’s not gonna get me.” The clerk laughed and said, “You know caffeine is a diuretic.” With a dejected air, I asked for directions to the restroom.
Returning to my outside table, I watched the passing traffic. As I took a sip from the dark caffeine-nectar, I started to think about how I have been drawn to these places ever since my days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, where they were a part of my daily routine. In Bulgaria, cafés are often the foundation of community and social life. I was not sure what they are in this country. That’s why I was sitting outside Atlas that day. I at least wanted to figure out what this particular café represented within this cultural context. I wanted to know why people come. What kinds of people come? I wanted to understand the café’s place in this society.
Cafés are one manifestation of what Ray Oldenburg calls “the third place.” First places are the home, second places are work and third places are cafés, bars and other social meeting places. Oldenburg feels that third places are disappearing in the United States.
I took a long sip, leaned back, and questioned the plausibility of this study. Little round and rectangle tables were inside and out. I felt sure that the tables and the parlor-like atmosphere would make it a “bring your own friends” sort of place, not the kind of place I could easily study (Oldenburg, 171). I suppose this was my first prejudice about café culture in the United States. I sat at my table for about an hour. I then asked the server when the most customers tend to come, and decided I would return.
EXPOSITION – The Return
Early the next evening, I went back to the café. Quite a few people were there this time, and the quiet, empty place I had been to the day before was now very much alive. I stood in line at the counter and waited. The café moved at a leisurely pace. The various espresso machines created a white noise that formed the auditory backdrop for the café. They served as metronomes for the tempo of the café’s life. They worked fast enough to keep the servers occupied and the café moving, but not too fast to prevent conversation among servers and the customers in line. In Atlas, no one waits on you; rather they wait with you. The customers have time to talk with each other, and the servers can chat with the customers. Impatient customers who do not like the wait usually leave, and so their hurry never interrupts the natural pace of the café. Waiting can pull back a racing mind. It creates a calm, tranquil atmosphere that encourages relaxation and friendly interaction among the customers.
While waiting, I asked a customer behind me about a sign advertising Flamenco music at another café. I asked him where it is.
“Oh, that’s on McCain.”
“Where’s that?” I ask again. “I’m new in town.” We spoke about that a while, and then he said. “You should go check the guy out. He’s a great guitarist. He’s from Syria or Lebanon or somewhere in that area.” While waiting in line, I would have many brief conversations like this one. Somehow waiting at a place where we all plan to stay for a time produces informality.
Many ethnographers of cafés, bars, and other public areas have said that the informality so prolific in such places produces social equality (Habermas, 36; Oldenburg, 26). By this, they mean that people from different walks of life talk unhindered by their class differences. Of course, Habermas was largely referring to open discussions between the bourgeoisie and the politically powerful aristocracy. I believe the idea that third places are spheres of equality is only partially true. People tend to congregate socially with others in their social class. Certainly on occasions when people of different social groups gather, the slower pace of third places gives them time to talk, which may be unavailable anywhere else in their lives. Conversation facilitates mutual understanding, but it does not erase identities.
I took my coffee and wandered outside. My table from the day before was free. I sat down and noticed that most of the other outdoor tables were taken, some by groups of two to three and others by individuals. Most of the people were in their early 20’s. Many had backpacks lying under their tables and books, perhaps for their classes, on the tables. They were mostly undergraduates, though a few, such as I, were graduate students. Clearly, the majority were students at the university, which dominates the town’s life. Only one or two people were reading. For the others, their books were as secondary to their café experiences as the coffee they were drinking (Noones, 4). Rather, they were either caught up in their various conversations or just sitting quietly enjoying the pleasant group atmosphere or lost in thought or perhaps loneliness. They all seemed to have come here and met each other, rather than come with a large group of friends. Many of those sitting inside the café had come with others. They had brought their community with them, rather than coming to the café in order to find it. I noticed that quite often, though not always, they were older than those outside. I would later find out the true importance of this distinction, but I was mostly interested in those seated outside. In an anthropological tone, I jokingly noted in my journal, “Day 2: I have found the mysterious natives of Atlas. They seem friendly, yet there is something dark under their jovial exteriors.”
A couple at the table in front of me was having a light conversation punctuated by numerous pauses. During one of the pauses, I asked for directions to Tulsa. I was not really going there, but it seemed like a nice way to enter the conversation. We spoke for about fifteen minutes. The conversation was not particularly significant, and I never saw them again. But, it was then that I realized that I could find a way inside the café’s culture.
I have found very little written about cultures in American cafés. Many articles have been written on cafés in Amsterdam, the Middle East and other countries, but significantly fewer on those in the United States. I assume the reason for this is that American cafés do not seem particularly exotic to American ethnographers, and people often assume that interesting culture must be exotic. The few writings that exist describe the general atmosphere in cafés but do not cover specific groups.
I am going to tell the story of a small group of people who gather in front of Atlas. I went there every Tuesday evening and Saturday afternoon to get to know them. This is the story of their struggle to find community.
RISING ACTION – Enteringthe Conversation
As a highly introverted person, I sometimes have difficulty starting conversations with strangers. I want to do so, but often I cannot think of anything to say. I found this true of many people who come to the café alone. They are introverts seeking social experiences, conversation, and community. From my time at the café, I have found that people who are more open to distraction (such as looking up at passing cars) also appear to be more open to conversation. Generally, they are the ones outside, unlike those inside who are not open to distraction, but are engrossed in private conversation or reading. Those outside are either staring off into the distance or look up from their books frequently and really don’t get much work done. I will tell the story of the social introverts who come to the café looking for community. The informality of the café makes it easier for them to find this. My experiences meeting each of them for the first time were so uniform that I will present them all at once.
I arrived at the café a little after 7:00 on a Tuesday evening. I had been here quite a bit over the past couple of weeks. I wasn’t previously a part of the café community, and so I had to invest extra time in order to enter the culture. An important part of becoming a regular and entering café culture is establishing trust (Oldenburg, 35). I would come to the café several times a week, often just briefly, so that people would begin to recognize me as more than just a casual customer. I brought along one of my textbooks so that the regulars, who were predominantly college students would have an instant topic of conversation in relating to me and also associate me as being on the “inside.” Usually the regulars would arrive at the café about 7:30. I got there a little early in order to secure “my table;” otherwise, getting there too late would mean having to sit inside, away from the regulars. I opened the book I had brought with me. I started reading and waited.
About 7:20 someone arrived. He got a coffee, sat down at a table outside and took a thick book out of his backpack. He opened it but spent more time starring off into the distance as if the text were written somewhere on the evening skyline, giving his book only cursory glances. A train suddenly passed by commanding our attention.
Dave: “That’s a little distracting.”
James: “Yeah, it is. But there’s something nice about a train going by interjecting itself into what you are doing.”
Dave: “I can see that. I just appreciate a dirty element in this far too suburban and clean town.”
James: “Where are you from?”
Dave: “Little Rock.”
Dave: “What about you?”
James: “Around here. Northwest Arkansas.”
For a few more minutes we continued to talk about Fayetteville and our origins. Then there was a pause for a minute or two.
Dave: “Are you a student here?”
James: “Yeah, I’m a grad student in Philosophy.”
While we were talking, a woman had entered and began sporadically writing something in a notebook. She suddenly looked up at me.
Dee: “Are you a psychology major?” She asked, glancing at my book on Jung.
Dave: “Oh. This is for one of my classes in Communication. I’m a grad student. What about you?”
Dee: “I am a music major.”
Dave: “Wow. What do you play?”
James: “I didn’t know that.”
They obviously knew each other, but not well. Later, I met Phil, another regular, but I will describe him soon
We continued our conversation in starts and stops. Like most of the others sitting in front of the café, they were open to conversation, but their gregariousness was tempered by a certain shyness. The textbooks were a helpful conversation starter, yet issues of trust remained. I was a stranger, and so we had to learn something about each other. We shared our respective backgrounds – where we are from, what we are studying. This background information made each of us more human in the other’s mind; it is easier to feel comfortable around someone about whom we know something. Unlike work related settings, we did not use this background information to establish any kind of social hierarchy. However, considering our commonalities, I do not see how we could have done so. For the most part, one is either in the community or outside it. The few positions within it are based on popularity and a member’s relative charm.
We stayed at our own tables throughout the conversation. The tables maintained an extra degree of personal space; they created boundaries between people who do not yet know each other well. They kept us from having to commit to the conversation. The tables thus make people feel secure speaking with strangers.
CLIMAX – Speaking at Last
Everything but the little café is wrapped
In night, which
Occasionally is pierced by the light of a passing car.
It is Tuesday.
I have just arrived and approach the café.
I am no longer a stranger.
Dee and Phil call out my name
A greeting by name is also an
And confirm I am a regular. >> Invitation to sit at the person’s table. Not doing so is acceptable but Personal space is valued at and conversations between two tables do occur.
Yes, I now arrive at 7:30 (or later),
No need to come early and wait.
And so I get a decaf (I want to sleep tonight),
Sit at their table and ask,
“How are you doing?”
“Well, Dee was just telling me…”
“I’ll tell you later,” she said. “How are things
The voices of those around us
Blend into an indistinguishable drone,
Which makes it easier to speak freely
Because my words will merely vanish
Into the enveloping din.
I know most of them, but not all by name.
They live in the area, and when
They have time they come here to talk.
“Oh, nothing new.”
Phil no longer studies but works in a restaurant,
He is uniform when I arrive.
He is frustrated, in a terrible mood
And speaks louder than is normal at the café.
“Someone came in the store today, >> People usually speak at a level such that their voices blend in with other voices and do not overtake them.
Drunk or stoned.
I asked him if he had come here alone.
He said, ‘What of it?’
I said ‘if you get in your car
I’ll call the police.’ >> Certainly there is a sense of social equality outside the café, probably due to shared student-status and similar ages. Phil’s acceptance among the regulars comes from his ex-student status.
I repeated it. He left saying
He would call my manager the next day
And make sure I lost my job.
I then called the police.”
“You just should have pushed him out
And left it alone,” said James.
“I partly wonder if I had done the right thing.
But what if he had killed someone.”
He sighed and I said,
“I admire your courage in doing what you did.”
James is the other graduate student,
He is always halfway through a thick book.
Each time a different one.
He likes to explain what he has read so far.
“In many ways Wittgenstein is the father
He wrote that language is a solipsistic system
And does not capture the universe outside.”
“I agree,” I said,
“There is no one to one correlation,
Between word and world,
But if words have no link to the outside
When I buy electronics >> I tend to interject humor into conversations to make sure things do not get too aggressive or negative.
Then how do I trust the instruction guide?”
Phil responded more seriously.
He loves science, philosophy and their implications,
But he doesn’t like Postmodernism.
Dee kept quiet.
She merely sees such discussions as
I pull back from the conversation
Phil is very rational and
He takes the opposite side just to spark a debate.
This is why
So many of the regulars don’t speak much
The regulars at the café like to agree.
I listen back in and they
Are discussing Iraq:
“Bush has not yet shown
a connection to Al Qaida,”
Again Phil takes the opposite side.
A risky move
Because among the regulars
Common politics is assumed.
“Yeah, but do [inspection] violations really warrant war?”
“Perhaps they do,” says Phil.
The community in front of the café is liberal.
To say that third places
May not be true. >> At least here. Rules for inclusion in any group can constitute formality. It’s just that they don’t seem formal to those who naturally meet the criteria.2
A degree of conformity.
Dee, strong opinioned, cried
“How can you say that!”
“That we should go to war.
It would just
Phil backed down.
His debate had produced negative feelings.
“I don’t believe…
I’m just playing devil’s
Things went silent,
And we returned to our cold coffee.
Letting it occupy the awkward silence.
A little time passes
A few more regulars arrive.
I know a few of them by name,
We all say, “Hey!” >> In some cultures, people whose name they specifically people usually only greet those they know.
The tables are filling up, acknowledge others who are
Free chairs, a part of the culture, but
A prized commodity,
Are scarce. do not know. In this café,
Someone sits at our table.
He is a grad student in philosophy
Who knows James.
He also seems to know Dee.
He introduces himself to Phil and me.
We have an introductory talk
About who we are,
What we do.
Soon he and James talk about classes.
Dee and I talk about music,
I like Tales of Hoffman;
She does not.
She practices many hours,
She doesn’t have many friends.
The people at the café seem to be
Of her acquaintances.
Phil listens in but has nothing to say.
Music and the arts are not his forte.
Soon he interjects into James’ conversation
His own days as a student.
It’s a shame. He liked to learn
But couldn’t handle the stress.
As the hour grew later,
The groups grew larger.
And outside Atlas the conversations
Attempt to make room for the growing numbers.
They become less personal and less political,
And begin to concentrate on school, work
And also become more humorous. >> The fact that the regulars are of mixed gender doesn’t seem to affect the topics of conversation. When only men are present the topics are largely the same.
But to be honest,
It often strikes me
As gossip (professors, politics & parties).
When they talk about current events
They always agree.
Phil doesn’t like crowds and soon he left.
James sometimes gets up and mingles among
The people he knows.
He is more timid around strangers though.
Dee tends to stick with her original group
And like me, talks with people who sit at the table.
The day had been warm and bright.
By evening a dull chill caught the air.
I had been coming to the café
For more than two months and was still unaware
Of a story about this culture to tell.
Phil is a smart person
Who does not find the intellectual
Discourse he desires around his work,
And so he comes to the café seeking it there.
And due to his love of debate some people
Don’t care for him.
Enough people do
That his place in the group is secure.
James doesn’t talk much about himself.
Mostly his thoughts, ideas and goals.
He finds a community of convenience
At the café.
A place apart from school
And away from home.
He generally comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays
To talk with people he knows.
Dee doesn’t know many people.
I assume she comes here to find
Yet it is rather odd.
Phil and James and I
May hang out
Away from the café.
Dee doesn’t seem to want to.
She spends no time with regulars
From the café.
She seems to keep people at bay.
Perhaps the story is that
Four different people have four different
Reasons for coming.
That is in the next chapter,
The final installment.
But as I had said,
“By evening a dull chill caught the air.”
I walked up to the table and greeted Dee,
And sat at her table.
She seemed upset and told me
A rather personal story.
Perhaps the level of trust
No one else was around.
After a half-hour, James arrived.
He pulled a chair up to the table
And described his busy schedule.
“I’m starting to get busy too,”
“I have a couple of papers to do.”
I shared as well and then asked
If they had seen Phil.
“Oh, I hope he doesn’t come.
I’m not in the mood to argue today,”
When she loosened the grip on her tongue
She spoke freely.
“It’s not that I dislike him;
It’s just you never know what he
When speaking politics with Dee,
She is sometimes intolerant
Of those with whom she disagrees.
“I kind of like the debate.” says James.”
At the café,
He is odd that way.
We spoke for a half hour
Before it started getting crowded.
After a couple of hours I left
Feeling that once I finished
I may not remain a part of the group.
Read ahead and I will tell you why.
DENOUMENT – Coming Home
After finishing a conversation with Dee and James one chilly Tuesday evening, I left the cafe with the odd feeling of having done this before. The three of us plus one other had sat out in this night talking, the collective steam from our coffee and breath disappearing somewhere above the table. A few students out in front of the café were noticeably cold, yet had also remained outside instead of taking one of the indoor tables. I soon remembered having done this in Bulgaria. Why did I sit out in the cold then, and why did I do it now? Community. The joy of having Oldenburg’s third place – a place to gather outside of work and outside of home. In Bulgaria, it was the first time for me to be a regular at a third place. It many ways, it is mirrored in the television show Cheers. The kind of place you walk in and quite a few people know who you are, greet you by name and chat with you almost “a place where everybody knows your name.” This is what I had found in my little Bulgarian village. It took me a long time to realize what it was, and then I had assumed that it did not really exist here, in the US. As I found in my readings, it is common to think that. Ironically, a small number of people at the café didn’t seem to think it really existed, and yet we had all built it here at Atlas on L Street.
Yet it wasn’t for me. They were all younger than I, and at times I felt that sitting outside Atlas, I was reprising a role that I haven’t played in many years. The more time people spend with those with whom they agree, the more radical their opinions become. But, as John Milton said, we grow through what is contrary (Hughes, 729). I no longer cared to play the part of a young liberal sitting around with other liberals congratulating ourselves for our openness, yet pushing aside the conservative voices.
Atlas is one of many places in Fayetteville that provide community in a town too large to provide it on its own. Those who meet outside the café (inside on very cold days) seek a place away from home and school where they can informally gather with others like themselves.
Leaving the café for the last time, I felt as if I were walking away from the ideas of Habermas and Oldenburg. I did not find a true discursive community at Atlas because discourse occurs at the intersection of differing viewpoints. Oldenburg frequently mentions European neighborhood cafés and pubs. Though people with different opinions may populate these third places, Eric Laurier, Angus Whyte, and Kathy Buckner point out that the people are usually not from different social classes. Perhaps true discourse is a cultural phenomena and not a communal one. Over dinner, Bulgarians and Spaniards are more prone to fiery debate than their American counterparts. Third place communities may provide a venue for discourse, but they do not cause the discourse. Perhaps cultures discouraging debate at the dinner table, also build communities of like-mindedness.
While other cultures may promote discursive communities, I believe that the U.S. fosters special interest communities, be they religious, political or hobby. In special interest communities, people with similar values come together. This is not to say that other cultures lack such communities, but our discomfort with disagreement encourages this type of community. If we had more neighborhood cafés and bars in the United States, we would still meet others of similar social class, but we risk the confrontation of opposing viewpoints. Phil’s opposite viewpoints were out of place because they dampened the idealist fervor, thus making him unpopular in the group.
Different communities satisfy changing needs throughout the stages of life. I no longer seek an idealist community, but discursive and activist ones. With time, perhaps many of those with whom I had sought community will also find it somewhere else, perhaps inside the café.
1 Habermas thought of cafés as having been intellectual, discursive communities. People would read the same books or newspapers and then debate. At Atlas the books are often for show as some kind of intellectualism is prerequisite for membership.
2 Laurier’s ethnography of a café shows that informality does have rules. These rules come from the café environment and societal rules of behavior. In this situation at Atlas, the rules are created by the culture within the café.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: MIT P, 1989.
Hughes, Merritt Y. “Areopagitica.” in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. New York: Macmillan, 1957.
Laurier, Eric, Angus Whyte, and Kathy Buckner. “Ethnography of a Neighborhood café: Informality, Table Arrangements and Background Noise.” Journal of Mundane Behavior 2.2: 31 pp.
Nunes, Mark. “The Realities and Virtualities of Cyber cafés.” 5pp. 1999.
Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. New York: Marlowe, 1999.
Author: David M. Jones is a MA candidate at the University of Arkansas, where he specializes in Cultural Studies. He is currently writing his MA thesis on transcendental gastronomy, and wonders why academic writing always seems stylistically stagnant.