The story that Borders is closing many locations (see earlier posts here, here, and here) is related to news that some Starbucks locations in New York City are going to cover up their electrical outlets to discourage people from staying too long:
Well, now some Starbucks in New York City are reportedly pulling the plug on that idea, actually covering up their electrical outlets to discourage squatters.
“Customers are asking (for it). They just purchased a latte and a pastry and there is nowhere to sit down in some of these high-volume stores,” Starbucks spokesperson Alan Hilowitz said…
It is a move that has some Starbucks regulars saying … it’s about time.
Some, including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, say these two businesses provide “third places” between home and work. Thus, if the companies do things that inhibit social behavior, such as close locations, the suggestion is that they weaken the social realm as people will then be more isolated. (See a recent example of this argument here.)
But these businesses are not just providing a public good and this is one lesson that joins these two stories: they need to make enough money to keep the third places open. At Starbucks, the people who sat too long and used the free Wi-Fi ended being a nuisance to customers who wanted to pay for coffee, sit down for a short while, and then leave. At Borders, the best way to make sure the locations would stay open was to purchase more. Sure, a book at Borders might cost more but the purchase helps subsidize the cafe and the social life that may come with it.
This leads to a bigger question: would Americans be willing to pay for third places with their consumer dollars? If given the choice between a cheaper book at Amazon.com or a book at the nearby Borders, which would most people choose?
This is also a reminder that these locations are not public spaces: they are privately owned and can set their own priorities and values for the space. There still are public spaces in the United States: public parks like Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia draw attention (in this book – though it also talks about shopping malls and markets, both privately owned). Instead of lamenting the loss of Borders or Starbucks, one could fight instead for taxpayer supported public spaces that should be open to all people.