Hands down my favorite fictional character of the summer was a grumpy Swede named Ove. Recently widowed and unwillingly ‘retired,’ Ove is furious about everything: computers, Audi drivers, consultants, people who don’t know how to repair bicycles, clowns. But most of all, he’s exasperated with the frivolity of a world where no one bothers to brew a proper cup of coffee at home.
While A Man Called Ove made me laugh out loud more times than I can count, I can’t get on board with Ove’s anti-café mindset. Besides the fact that it threatens our family’s livelihood, it goes against my deeply held belief in the life-affirming value of institutions that serve as ‘third places.’ It was that stubborn belief that led to the unlikely birth of Mulberry’s Market.
With apologies to our friends who have already heard this a million times, here’s the tale. Chad and I moved to Piedmont from San Francisco in 2003. We were just the sort of people who make Ove’s blood boil. With two small kids, we found sanity in the daily ritual of patronizing our favorite coffee shops. Piedmont offered no such distractions. There was only the gas station and a rudimentary, coffee-less convenience store. After launching our child-raising careers in Boston’s South End and the Mission in San Francisco, we couldn’t shake the dull empty ache of nowhere to go. So we wrote a business plan for a store we planned to call ‘The Third Place’ and refused to listen to the sensibly skeptical folks with an endless supply of reasons why our idea couldn’t work.
The name didn’t make it but the business did, and Mulberry’s survives because Ove’s fetish about self-reliance through home coffee brewing is thankfully a minority opinion. Virginia makes sure that Mulberry’s coffee is excellent, but truthfully, it’s not difficult to make coffee at home. Especially with those new pods. As Ove might say, the most incompetent twit on the planet could make coffee with those pods. So I dare say it’s not the coffee that brings you all in every day.
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term ‘third place’ in his 1990 book The Great Good Place, which celebrated places where people can regularly go to take it easy and commune with friends, neighbors – whoever shows up. In a 2002 follow-up article in the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter elaborated:
I’m not talking about winning and losing here, or races or sports or politics, but something far more important: the simple art of living your life in the real world. In that world, as someone has pointed out, all communities – and therefore all members of communities – need a “third place.” It’s not your home. It’s not where you work. Those are the first two places. No, it’s the place where you go to, um, be.
No one really comes to Mulberry’s just for the coffee. You come because you might run into your son’s math teacher, your neighbor, or someone you’ve been meaning to ask about something. You’re meeting a friend or just curious to see what the high schoolers eat for lunch these days. The best compliment Mulberry’s ever received came from a teenager I was interviewing for a cashiering job. After asking her everything on my list, I checked to see if she had any questions for me. She thought for a few beats, and then said she didn’t. “I guess I kind of grew up here, you know?” Chad, Virginia and I just signed on for 10 more years of being Piedmont’s third place (thanks Kathy K, Mike G. & Beth P!), and we couldn’t be more delighted to watch another generation of kids grow up.
Ove is the type of man who sees no value in connecting with neighbors, or going anywhere to, um, be. His tale is such a beautiful story that I don’t want to spoil it. But you can probably guess that I wouldn’t love it so much if he didn’t eventually come around, metaphorically, to the inarguable pleasure of having someone else make your coffee.