The corner store and the coffee shop: sociological reflections on place

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The following is the text of my speech from the closing session of the National Main Streets Conferences in Baltimore this Wednesday:

Thank you all so much for having me here today.  It’s good to be in a room full of people who love place, appreciate place and are working to build great places.

I’m here because I’m a sociologist who studies places and community.  But I’m a sociologist who studies places and communities because I’m personally obsessed with places and people and the connections between those things.  I loved places long before I loved sociology, and in fact, my love for places is part of what led me to sociology.

I’m a placist.  This is a word invented by a friend of mine-Sara Patterson-who is a historian of religion and is also obsessed with place, but with place and religion…with sacred places.  Placist is not in the dictionary….yet.  I give you all permission to start using it freely.  There is a word in the dictionary that describes love of place.  Topophila.  Topophilia is a good enough word, but I think topophilia sounds like a disease.  Like something you contract or a kind of madness.  “I’m sorry, I can’t come today.  I’ve come down with topophilia.”  Or, “I’m a topophiliac.”

I like placist instead.  It is an ideological stance.  It is a conviction, a passion, a movement you choose to align yourself with.  It is an “ist.”  My students today are very scared of ‘ists’ and ‘isms,’ but I believe we need more ‘ists’ in the world.  I am a feminist.  An environmentalist.  An anti-racist.  A place-ist.  I am unapologetically committed to places.  My love for them sometimes makes me inarticulate, so let me warn you.  Sometimes I think there are no words good enough for places and what they do.

It’s the end of the conference, and I’m sure you’re on the brink of information overload, so I’m not going to stand up here and summarize sociological research for you.  Instead, I’m going to talk about my own experiences with places and how those experiences are informed by my sociological perspective.  As a sociologist, I’m interested in how places shape social life.  So, I ask questions about how places shape our social interactions and the kind of communities in which we live.  I’m interested in how places create or contribute to existing inequalities and in how places shape our identities, the way we understand who we are and how we fit into the world.  So I’m going to start with the place I’m from and end where the place I live now and consider some of the sociological questions raised by these locations.  I want to think about what the places we create, and the places we preserve and the places we love say about us as people.

The Corner Store

I am haunted by places.  I am haunted by places I have lost.  The first place I lost was the corner store in the town where I grew up, Burlington, Kentucky.  I grew up in the country outside of town, but my grandmother lived two blocks down from the corner store.  This was in the days when farmers would still turn their farms over to their children at a certain age and take up a house in town.  The two most important landscapes of my childhood are the woods around the house where I grew up and the streets of downtown Burlington. And specifically, the corner store.  And, okay, the candy at the corner store. If you grew up in a town with a candy store or a corner store, or anything like it, you know that it wasn’t all about the candy.  Of course, the candy was part of it.  But a corner store with candy is also a destination for children, a place to go.  Going to the corner store is all about that experience of independence and exploration and possibility.  Anything could happen in the two blocks between grandma’s house and the corner store.  You could run into people, some you’re happy about running into, and some you’re not so happy about running into.  You could take any number of different routes to the corner store, some of them more acceptable to your grandmother than others.  The possibilities for what could happen are endless.  But nothing dangerous could happen, because everyone sees you and knows you.  As a sociologist, I’m interested in places as caretakers.  Good places create caretakers.  They create a community of caretakers, and therefore a safe environment for children.  The sociologist William H. Whyte in his study of small urban spaces found that the best predictor of the safety of a place was the presence of women.  If you find women in a place, it is generally a safe space to be.  I would say the same of children.  If children can walk around in your town on their own, you are probably in a safe community.

About the time I was in graduate school, the corner store closed its doors.  And then the church down the street bought it and tore it down. Can you guess what they put in its place?  Think of the Joni Mitchell song if you need a clue.  A parking lot.  Of course.  There is never a shortage of parking lots in the world.  We could always use one more.

My dissertation was about the loss of community and belonging in that town where I grew up.  It was about the process of suburbanization.  But really it was about the ghosts of place.  The folks I grew up with mostly weren’t much upset by the loss of that corner store.  Community to them was the people they knew, and they didn’t think that the corner store had much to do with that.

Now it’s almost 10 years later, and a lot of the people who made up that community are gone.  And so is the corner store.  Community shifts and changes.  People move in and people move in out.  People are born and people die.  If you preserve places, though, something of the community goes on.  A little essence disappears that might not have had you left that building standing.  There’s research that backs this up, that supports the notion that places serve physical markers for our memories, our identities, our communities.  But if you’ve ever lost a place like this, you don’t need the research to tell you that.  When I go home to Burlington, I’m haunted by the corner store and all the other places that have been lost.

The Coffee Shop

I am held together by places.  Places give me hope and sustain me.

By some set of circumstances beyond my control, I ended up living in Madison, Indiana.  Madison, as I’m sure many of you know, was one of the three pilot towns for the original Main Street pilot project.  I moved to Madison for a job, but I stay there because it is a place that gives me hope.  You know that scene from Beauty and the Beast, where Belle walks around town singing about this Little Town?  It’s supposed to be all about how much Belle wants to get out of the town, but it makes me want to move there.  When I first moved to Madison, I would walk down the streets and want to break into that song.  I could just imagine that everyone would join in, like the opening scene in a big production musical.  I could imagine swinging on a lamppost or two.  Or in the winter, when there’s a little snow on the ground and the lights are on all the buildings on Main St., I want to run down the streets screaming, “Merry Christmas, Madison!  Merry Christmas you old Madison Coffee and Tea Company!”  Living in Madison is a little like living in a Jimmy Stewart movie.

I want to tell you about a particular place in Madison, the Madison Tea and Coffee Company.  Most of the time I spent thinking of what I would say here today, I was sitting in the coffee shop in Madison.  It’s where I get all my best work done.   Let me tell you what you might see and hear on a typical morning or afternoon.  You might here a conversation between Cary, who works at the coffee shop, and an elderly woman who is telling her about the furniture store that used to be where the coffee shop is now when she was growing up in Madison. And if you hang out there as much as I do, yes, you probably know the names of most of the people who work there.   The elderly woman talks about how nice it is in the coffee shop, and then she and Cary gossip a bit about people they knew and where they live now.  In good places, you’ll hear lots of gossip, lots of people talking, because that’s part of what good places do.  They foster interaction and gossip a kind of social interaction that makes up the fabric of community; it’s sharing knowledge and creating community.  The coffee shop would be a great place to study gossip.  You’d think people would lower their voices, but they really don’t, so you can imagine all the interesting things you might hear sitting there.

At the coffee shop, you can sit on a nice stool looking out the window onto Main St.  Across the street is city hall, and then a sports bar, and a Chinese restaurant.  You’d probably see elderly people walking by.  Madison is still a town where you can age in place instead of being shipped off to a nursing home, and people of all different levels of mobility can live in Madison, get their groceries and their drugs from the pharmacist down the street.  It was just spring break in Madison, but even when it’s not, you’d see kids.  Sometimes I see gaggles of teenage girls or pre-teen girls.  Some of them live here.  Some of them are driven down to downtown Madison from up on the hilltop.  We are mall-less in this part of Southern Indiana, but before they had malls, we just had Main St.  The kids and teenagers sit on the bench or get smoothies in the coffee shop.  Sometimes there are couples on the bench across the street, just sitting in the sunshine.  There are regulars who stop and talk to each other.  Business owners from down the street.  Tourists who stop and ask about a place to eat.  There are special people like Vernon, who delivers the local paper and stops in at the coffee shop every day to talk to someone.  There is mingling of all different kinds of people.  Different races, different class backgrounds, different ages, different political beliefs.  Important business happens, and sometimes nothing happens at all.  I believe for some people who come into Madison Coffee and Tea Company, it may be the only conversations they have all day long.

Now, Madison is a town with a much stronger preservation ethic than Burlington, so no one there is talking about tearing down the coffee shop and putting up a parking lot.  But there’s still always talk of the need for more parking lots.  Personally, I’d rather spend some more time teaching people how to parallel park.  And I’m not saying all parking lots are bad.  But parking lots are a whole different kind of place, if they are places at all.  And yet, we live in a world where many people seem to feel an irresistible pull towards the parking lot.  The parking lot calls to them about ease and accessibility, but not particularly about conversation and interaction.

Internal and external landscapes

I recently read a speech given by the mother of the Main Street movement, Mary Means.  In it, she talked about her father, who was an architect, taking her to see beautiful architecture as a child.  We all have those places, don’t we?  Those places we carry around with us from childhood, or maybe later.  Places that shape the way we see the world.

In her memoir of growing up in the Austrialian bush, Jill Ker Conway discusses the ways in which the external landscape of that country shaped her internal sense of her self.  She says:  It took a visit to England for me to understand how Australian landscape actually formed the ground of my consciousness, shaped what I saw, and influenced the way a scene was organized in my mental imagery.  I could teach myself through literature and painting to enjoy this landscape in England, but…My landscape was sparer, more brilliant in color, stronger in its contrasts, majestic in its scale, and bathed in shimmering light.”  Conway is talking about natural landscapes, but what if we assume this is true about built landscapes as well?  What if we take seriously the idea that the places in which we live and work and socialize…the places in which we gossip or the streets we travel on our way to the corner store, shape the very ground of our consciousness?  Then what would we think about tearing down a corner store to build a parking lot?  What would we think about parking lots in general?

Here is what I want to tell you as a sociologist who studies place.  You are all in the business of shaping and molding places.  Of preserving them and making them vital and successful and sustainable.  You help shape and build external landscapes in cities and small towns across the country.  As they did in the town where I grew up, people will tell you that the corner store is unimportant.  That this building or that doesn’t matter.  That what a place looks like is just window dressing.  That no one really cares about Main Streets.  Don’t listen to them.  You are in the business of creating external landscapes, and those landscapes have great power.  They can make community easier or harder.  They can make a place where no one gets out of their car or a place where people sit next to each other and sometimes strike up conversations.  They can help people to care about each other and the place in which they live.  These external landscapes, as Jill Kerr Conway said, shape the very ground of our consciousness, the way we see ourselves, the wider world, and our relationship to it.  I can’t imagine a more important job or a more important calling.

Thanks to everyone from the National Trust and Main Street organizations.  It was a great time in Baltimore and a wonderful group of people.  Did I mention that we could see Camden Yards from our hotel room?


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  1. […] I was hooked on her writing through the wonderful talk she gave at the Main Street Conference:  The Corner Store and the Coffee Shop:  Sociological Reflections on Place.  She says what I always want to say in my work and writing – only Robyn is much more […]

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