The Making of a Third Place, Pt. I: First It Was Exciting
Some backstory on our deli + market adventure
It is what I call a “third place,” a setting beyond home and work (the “first” and “second” places respectively) in which people relax in good company and do so on a regular basis.
from Celebrating the Third Place by Ray Oldenburg
In attempting to tell you about life and business in our town, I will have to leave 99% of the charm and muck of it out—not to deceive you, but by the sheer limits of time and space and your attention.
“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”1
Here are a few grains:
In 2020, the only restaurant in our town closed, due to several factors brought to a head by the pandemic.
Tim’s younger brother had operated the restaurant for ten years as Bravo Bakery and Cafe, crafting homemade breads and pies and pizza, along with your usual small restaurant menu. Before that, my father-in-law had run it as The Chalet Restaurant since the early-80s, when he moved his wife and three sons to a tiny mountain valley and a town they’d never heard of.
Tim tells me stories about this move. He was a high school junior and an athlete who came from a larger and much more competitive school, academically and athletically. When they came to Camas Valley—one of the smallest schools in Oregon—he was met with hacky sack playing, cut-off jean wearing, pot-smoking “athletes” who didn’t give a rip about school. It was a culture shock and he knew he would leave as soon as he could.
That was forty-two years ago and here we still are, rooted in the valley and its stories.
All the “community’s rememberers”, as Wendell Berry refers to them in Jayber Crow, have stories of a particular place—the old tavern, the restaurant, the general store. They walk into an old building and see their past in its scars. But when a rural town loses a gathering place, they lose the setting for their stories.
People need stories. Stories need a setting, and a place in which to be told.
We lose the past in increments, as businesses shut down, buildings crumble, and the rememberers pass on. Small towns with no central place to gather become even more isolated2. Everyone has multiple forms of solitary entertainment in their home, and they go “to town” 30 miles away for groceries and work and recreation. Nothing holds them to a place, and the stories they hear are always about somewhere else.
By early 2021, our town was feeling the incremental loss of the restaurant pretty hard. People commented on it at church, at basketball games, at the gas station…and those are pretty much the only places you would see folks because there is nothing else to do or any other place to go here.
What do you think about buying the restaurant from my parents, remodeling it, and opening a store and a deli? Tim said one strange day in February.
I’ll pray about that, I said, probably sarcastically.
As a teenager, Tim had served time washing dishes and scrubbing potatoes in his dad’s kitchens, and it was always clear he never wanted to work in a restaurant again. He has worked for himself since he was 18, logging and developing land for 20 years and now, building beautiful custom homes.
I had done some waitressing and worked in fast food in college, so I also was not dreaming of the restaurant life. It’s grueling and unappreciated work, for the most part, and nothing in us desired to own a restaurant. Restaurant became a bit of a dirty word to us, in fact.
Not a restaurant; a deli and a market. We were carefully specific in our prayers.
We have collectively had many crazy ideas in our 27 years of marriage. We’ve followed through with some of them, and in our minds there is a thing or two we didn’t do, because of counsel, that we regret a little. But we live with our decisions and believe seeking God includes first, prayer, and then, listening to the counsel of those who love us, weighing it all and sifting our hopes and dreams through Scripture.
So we prayed about it, first.
March of 2021 was the end of an eight month volleyball season for me, and my journal notes how tired everyone was. The pandemic had made our fall sports season stretch out four times longer than normal, in fits and starts and cotton masks, with very few spectators, on outdoor courts, in winter. It was weird and exhausting, and throughout those eight months, players were dropping in and out of practice, experiencing tremendous burn-out in all areas of their lives. It was discouraging, especially for our talented group of seniors.
Praying about some huge life shift seemed insane at the time, because we were already experiencing so many shifts that were not of our choosing. My dad had passed away in August of 2020 and my grief was still at high tide. We’d had three kids marry in six months, and that was wonderful but hectic. Clients had canceled building contracts because of the pandemic. Two kids were navigating college and in-person classes that required weekly COVID testing to attend, plus online classes, plus moving back home due to campus shutdowns. Our youngest was thinking about his senior year of high school and changing his mind weekly about what he wanted to do afterwards. And the world in general was a dumpster fire.
God, are we crazy?
The deli idea started to get in our hearts, though. We would be down at the abandoned restaurant, looking things over, finding property lines and what not, and people from the community would stop by with questions. Is someone buying this? Is it going to reopen? We sure miss having a restaurant.
Tim and I would avoid eye contact with each other. We didn’t tell anyone what our prayers were, that we were crazy, that we just might choose to upend our lives. We pretended we were there to help Tim’s parents get it ready to sell, which is not entirely false. We held our prayers close but everywhere we turned we bumped into this need, this desire.
When it was time, we sought counsel from our kids first, then from other people in similar businesses, and from our church family.
All we needed was one firm, “No way, you guys are crazy.”
All we heard was, “That sounds like a great thing for the community.”
Nobody pretended we were going to get rich quick, or at all, but we weren’t looking at this first and foremost as a business venture. Thankfully, we didn’t need another source of income; but we also didn’t want to drain our life savings for a business that would continue to bleed us dry.
We knew something about being self-employed, but we knew absolutely nothing about owning a deli and a store. Zero.
We hadn't heard the term “third place” yet, but we were motivated by this dream of a beautiful and inviting place for our community, somewhere for the school kids to get lunch and hang out after classes, before practice; somewhere to meet a friend for coffee; somewhere to get lunch after church. We envisioned all the rememberers, the old-timers who missed their coffee and homemade biscuits and gravy at the Bravo Bakery or the Chalet Restaurant.
They say it takes five years for a new business to really take root, and there are abysmal facts and data about the number of new businesses that go under in the first two years. Add an ongoing pandemic and skyrocketing inflation, supply chain issues, the difficulties of employing people in a rural community, etc., and no one was ever going to tell us this was a genius business move. Risky, scary, and life-altering in ways we couldn’t fathom—yes definitely. Smart—not necessarily.
By May, we still hadn’t received a definitive no from anywhere. It seemed like it was possible for us to take this on—Tim had all the tools and skills to get a major remodel done, and I have always been idealistic enough to think that together, we can learn and do anything. We both love to make things beautiful and better. Most of our crazy ideas over the years have centered around our view of what a place could be, and we both strongly believe that redemption includes this earth we inhabit.
So in April, when it was clear that we would both be disappointed if the answer was no, we said our big yes3. We started tearing out cupboards and walls and multiple layers of very well-adhered flooring, and waited to see if “perhaps the LORD will help us.”4
He definitely would help us, but it wouldn’t be easy.
Next week I’ll share Part II: Then It Was Difficult.
More Beautiful Than Necessary is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
According to Wendell Berry’s main character Jayber Crow. Let me make a footnoted plug for reading here: if you’ve ever read Jayber Crow, you and I have a common language and you already know more about my small town than I could ever tell you in a Substack post. We are Port William, in so many ways.
“…decades of poor urban planning have encouraged people to stay at home. ‘Nesting’ or ‘cocooning’ are reported to be favored by increasing numbers of Americans. As the public sphere became more inhospitable and enervating to get around in, the private sphere improved. Homes are better equipped, more comfortable, and more entertaining than ever before.” Oldenburg, in 2001. (I am guilty here.)
I can get stuck in indecision, but God gave me a confident husband who is unafraid to move forward when there is no flashing arrow in either direction. His firm belief is that God will never punish us for making a “wrong choice” if we are truly committed to pleasing Him.
1 Samuel 14:6, CSB