The sun shines brightly into the Comic Grapevine on Pine Street. Aaron Martinez, 16, thumbs through the lineup of manga books. Comic books are his pastime, and the downtown shop is his third place, his home away from home.
Between the walls of stuffed anime dolls, comic books in all sizes and an assortment of action figures, Martinez finds a comfort that he doesn't find "out there," beyond the perimeters of the store.
Outside, comic enthusiasts are called names like dork and geek. Inside, they can read alone or they can play games and engage in discussion with others who share similar interests.
When Martinez is not at his first place (home) or at his second place (school), he can regularly be found at the comic book store.
It was soda shops, lodges, women's clubs and bowling alleys that were once the unofficial third places. They were where people could mingle, connect, find out what's happening and build relationships sometime between leaving the office and going to bed at night.
Working from home, instant messaging instead of talking and long commutes have driven people away from these separate, but central, groups of community. Some believe defining the idea of third places helps bring people back to a connecting place. Unlike home and work, that third place is where people go to be in their element of merely being.
The newly popular term "third places" was coined by social scientist Ray Oldenburg in his 1990 book, "The Great Good Place." He emphasizes that gathering places - coffee shops, bars, gyms, churches, parks, post offices, salons - are essential for community vitality and local democracy.
Whether it's Martinez, a sophomore at Tokay High School, playing the game of Magic with other teenagers, or a 60-year-old who spends afternoons at the golf course, almost every one has his and her own third place. Even businesses are using the idea of third places to capitalize and to keep customers returning.
The big, comfy chairs and matching dining areas at Starbucks are all part of its third place marketing plan to become the place people go when they are not at work, school or home.
Michael Trent, owner and chief consultant of Third Place Consulting, has helped businesses create third places for customers and employees. At a Lexus dealership, he turned a lunchroom with only an old coffee pot into a lounge for employees and customers. He created an environment with a big screen TV, a coffee bar with granite counter tops, laptop plug-ins and lounge seating. He has done the same thing at a furniture store and several churches.
"A third place has a stickiness factor," he said. "It goes beyond the product or service, it goes into experience."
At Java Aroma coffeehouse in Stockton, atmosphere is key. In the heart of the Miracle Mile on Pacific Avenue, the Java Aroma building is still identifiable by its bright marquee; but instead of announcing old movies, it advertises punk rock shows and café information. The interior is new, fresh, hip.
The soft hum of dramatic alternative rock flows through the dimly lit coffeehouse. At noon on a Monday, the venue is not filled with trendy or all-black wearing students that it caters to on weekends. The couch and tables and chairs are scattered with twentyand thirty-somethings working on laptops and answering ringing cell phones.
Many are not talking to each other. For some, their purpose in being at the coffee shop is to feel connected by being around people - even if they keep to themselves.
In a small nook, Jon Hernandez, 28, has turned a coffee shop table into his personal office. Though several coffee shops - Blackwater and Java Aroma - are his third places, he doesn't usually go to hang out. Like many, he goes to work in an environment that is unlike working at home.
Hernandez is self-employed with two businesses - Jon Michael Films, a film production company; and Univera Life Sciences, a health and wellness networking business.
When doing video production, he works at his home office. On small projects and his networking company, he totes his thin Apple Powerbook to Blackwater or Java Aroma.
"Atmosphere makes a huge difference," he said.
Though he likes when the coffee shops are loud with more people, he usually keeps to himself.
"Even if you don't interact with others, you still got out of the house, out of the cubicle. You went there because people were going to be around," Trent said. "If you wanted to be alone, you would go and sit in your car at a park."
But even then, Trent says, that would be driving to the park to be around others.
For Jodi Guira of Galt, third place is church. It is both a place to hang out and a place to focus. Church is a common third place because it brings the same people together regularly.
While many go to church only on Sundays, Jodi goes several times a week, and sometimes twice in one day. On Sundays, she attends morning service and afternoon choir practice; Tuesday evening is cell group (bible study) and Thursday evening is practice for drama ministry. That doesn't include the once-a-month Sunday night service and the women's brunch.
Guira works all day and then goes home at night. In between, the majority of her socialization is with friends from church.
"I don't go out to bars or parties," she said. "If I'm not at work, I'm at church."
Churches have been some of Trent's biggest business, including a 6,000 member church in Southern California.
"I'm known more as the church bartender than anything," said Trent, who says he's been known to be the church barista. "I can stand behind there and talk about surfing, snowboarding or how to feed children on the other side of the world."
At Comic Grapevine, owner Alan Chang, 26, students and adults find common ground. It fits some of Oldenburg's third case characteristics of being a neutral ground, filled with conversation, accommodating, low profile, playful, a home away from home for those who stop in regularly.
In the words of Oldenburg: "What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably - a 'place on the corner,' real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile."