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'Third places' are critical to community life, Dave Engen finds
Researching the coffee klatch crowd
Speech Communication's Dave Engen studies the importance of 'third places.'
By Regan Carstensen, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 1/30/2008]
Doing academic work may not sound like the most enjoyable way to spend a summer, but for Dave Engen, the process and outcome were rewarding.
“I got a lot more from doing this project, I think, than I’m probably able to give back,” he said.
As an instructor in the Department of Speech Communication at Minnesota State University, Engen received the Presidential Teaching Scholar Fellowship from the university to fund the “Third Place Project,” which can be viewed at www.voicesfromthevalley.com.
The documentary takes a close look at four businesses in Mankato and the people who keep them going. The Wagon Wheel Cafe, Dan’s Barber Shop, Mocol’s Supermarket and Mutch Northside Hardware are featured because of the long- standing service they’ve provided to the town, despite giant chains stirring things up over the years.
“I’ve been here seven years, and I’m very interested in what makes Mankato unique, what makes Mankato different from other towns, and it’s not the ( chain stores),” Engen said, describing smaller businesses as part of the core of the community.
Engen’s interest in these locally owned businesses and the concept of third places sparked the idea for a documentary. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third places,” which simply describes a place where people go for a certain purpose, maybe to eat, shop or get a haircut, but they talk, enjoy themselves and build a community at the same time.
Engen’s documentary, made up of pictures and audio clips, captures the history and characters that make a third place what it is.
“These folks, not only are they an important part of the community, but they are an important and unique community themselves,” he said.
“There’s just this wonderful, sort of communal life in these places.”
One of Engen’s highlights in doing the project was getting to be a part of the lives of some Wagon Wheel regulars.
He spent some of his birthday talking to the Bullshippers, a group of almost a dozen men who come together bright and early for coffee at the restaurant.
“To have these guys singing happy birthday to me — it was just kind of fun,” Engen put it simply.
It wasn’t only at the Wagon Wheel that Engen enjoyed some company.
Each location brought interesting people and equally interesting stories to tell.
At Mocol’s Supermarket, however, owner George Mocol was anxious for the chance to get his hands on the microphone and do some storytelling himself.
“Here he did all these interviews with old customers, with children that come to the store, and it’s just delightful to listen to,” Engen said. “At one point he picks up the microphone and starts reflecting on the meaning of this place.”
Engen said you really find dynamic characters at third places, and even though it wasn’t a dominant theme in any of his interviews, the owners he spoke with are aware it’s a competitive business climate.
Regardless of corporate chains moving in, third places will always have a very distinctive quality.
“Not a single script in these places,” he said. “No one said ‘Hi, how are you?’ because they were trained to say ‘Hi, how are you?’”
There’s also a very different atmosphere in the smaller businesses, one that allows life to slow down a little bit and let people be themselves, Engen said. He was especially appreciative that people let him into their lives and establishments, all while snapping photos and recording memories.
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