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Who ever heard of a third place before Starbucks? Outside a social science classroom, likely precious few. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the concept in 1991 to describe a person’s place beyond one’s home (the first place) and work (the second place)—where we live in public. 

The $6 billion-a-year coffee giant dates back to long before that—the first store opened in 1971—and yet its website says that, in 1983, corporate founder Howard Schultz “had a vision…. A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home.” In other words, Starbucks wants to be an idea, not just a flat white. 

But recent brushes with controversy show that the company may not be the cornerstone of an American utopia. In April, a manager of a Philadelphia outpost called police to arrest two men—black men—who hadn’t purchased anything (the charge: suspicion of trespassing). Social media uproar followed. If Starbucks was the town square, it looked like not everyone was welcome.

The corporate office quickly issued a broad mea culpa, pledging to close 8,000 American stores on May 29 so staff could undergo bias training. Now former CEO (and executive chairman, and, oh yeah, rumored U.S. presidential candidate) Howard Schultz said he was “ashamed” and “embarrassed” by the incident. Was the entire event—the arrest, the massive apology—proof that Starbucks is society’s arena for change, or merely its mirror?

University of Washington political science professor Aseem Prakash argues that the nationwide bias training isn’t evidence of great corporate social responsibility—it’s merely good business. “Starbucks is now the new town square, where people hang out and mill around,” he says, and that scene is a lifestyle they sell to a liberal clientele who cares about racism, homophobia, and gender issues. He calls Starbucks’ response to charges of racism brilliant and appropriate, but no landmark campaign: “Corporate social responsibility is when you are doing beyond the norm. This was a marketing decision.”

Starbucks isn’t even a true third place, argues Nate Storring of the national Project for Public Spaces nonprofit; no corporation could be. “Almost all the places Ray Oldenburg talked about were private companies, but independent businesses,” he says, like taverns and pubs. “When you’re trying to maximize profit first and foremost, as you have to when you’re so large, it’s almost impossible” to be a true social center. 

There’s a mythology around the term third place, notes Storring, but few spots in the twenty-first century truly embody Oldenburg’s vision: “America has largely designed and zoned such places out of existence.” 

In April, Starbucks emailed a statement to Bloomberg news that included the line, “Businesses have a role and responsibility to tackle societal challenges head on.” But even if the company wants it, the revolution will probably not start at Starbucks. 

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