Alba, the coffee shop that now sits on 112 East Baltimore downtown, follows a string of laughable changes in owners and names. First, there was Starbucks, followed by Green Frog. Green Frog sold their business to Ugly Mug, and Ugly Mug closed shop within a few months.
The important thing, though, is that there is a really good local shop there, and it is celebrating one year in business.
My story in that shop began at Green Frog, where I accepted a job as barista and worked for the next two years through school, quitting just before I graduated and they closed. After graduation, I decided to stick around Jackson, and I had the opportunity to put my graphic design degree to work to design a logo for the new shop. I then accepted a position as barista and have spent the last year waking up earlier than I ever have to make people coffee and explain this new shop to them.
First, it was explaining the shop’s history. Second, the drinks. Alba is the first shop in that location to carefully prepare espresso that is made from freshly ground, precisely measured coffee, ensuring that every shot served in a drink is perfectly balanced. Then the shot is combined with milk that is steamed carefully to make a smooth and silky latte. If you’re lucky and can take the time to enjoy your drink in the shop, the barista will carefully pour some kind of leaf or at least a swirling blob into the ceramic cup that they will proudly slide across the counter to you.
It’s why that place is so important to me that I find myself struggling to articulate.
There’s a concept I heard about sometime called “third places,” which areplaces that become "anchors" of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.
With a little more research, I learned that Ray Oldenburg wrote about the term in his book The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community.
He writes that these third places are the places outside of our workplaces and homes, where we spend communal time.
So Alba falls into that definition—a place that can offer us broader, more creative interaction. A place that can anchor community life and offer conversation over coffee, music, or art. A place that connects us with the people we live our lives alongside but so rarely slow down enough to notice.
Research shows that these third places are defined as free or inexpensive, offering food and drink, highly accessible, proximate for many (walking distance), and involving regulars. They are welcoming and comfortable spaces, and new and old friends are found there.
Looking back, it is those marks of the shop that changed my attitude about Jackson and have made my life here in this small city feel so full. Those were the avenues that opened up to some of my dearest friendships and most memorable experiences.
I think it is probably hard for local businesses and third places to survive because it’s easy to pop in to a chain restaurant, grab a sandwich, ignore the cashier, and move on with your life. There are times when that is necessary, but it can foster a culture that leaves us with impersonal and hurried interactions. Frequenting third places actually strengthens and supports our community.
Research on these “third places” shows that regulars begin to have the same feelings of warmth and belonging as they would in their own homes. These places are not too extravagant or pretentious—all walks of life are drawn to them.
The simple welcoming gesture of a relatively inexpensive cup of coffee or tea draws all kinds of people and brings them into one space. If a shop isn’t too alienating or expensive, it serves as a leveling ground for all kinds of people who would never otherwise interact. During any given shift, I would serve a diverse group of pastors, students, maintenance men, judges, lawyers, police officers, visitors passing through I-40, mothers, fathers, mayoral candidates, elderly residents from the neighborhood, and homeless individuals.
If you make this third place a part of your life, you may also find a new friend in the barista serving you, or start a conversation with a face you’ve recognized but never met, or bump into an old friend and catch up. You might take the barista’s recommendation and try something new. You may read the posters lining the window and attend one of the events that looks interesting. If you come frequently, you will also inevitably, and with some discomfort, put a face to homelessness and addiction and poverty, and struggle with how you feel about giving a stranger who has approached you outside of the shop money or food.
While I can’t pretend to understand all the complexities of poverty and prejudice or any of the complex issues that can be so intricately woven into our cities and businesses, I do know that being in that space consistently for three years has forced me to see those problems, to feel them, to put names to them.
Our third places can become places that alienate, welcoming only those who fit our mold of what is acceptable and comfortable in society. I also know they can be warm, inviting places that open up a community to one another. They are places to foster connections and conversations between people who are invested in a whole litany of endeavors in this city.
I hope that the endless transition of shops might end because people discover the richness of investing in a third place. I hope for many more years of success for Alba, and for that place to continue offering more possibilities for friendship and vibrance to this community.
Courtney Searcy (a former barista at Alba) likes to design things, take pictures, and write words that tell good stories about their community. Jackson became home after she graduated from Union University in 2014, where she studied Graphic Design and Journalism. One-half of Souvenir Design Company, she currently works as a freelance graphic designer. She thinks the best things in life are porch swings, brunch, art, music, and friends to share it all with.
Photography by Courtney Searcy.