In his book The Great, Good Place, Ray Oldenburg writes about the power of informal, common places like pubs and taverns where everyone in the community is welcomed. Oldenburg saw these places as vital to communities, providing a simple way for people to connect to and understand each other. His celebration of the ‘third place’ — not home or workplace, but ‘our’ place — captured the imagination of many Americans, including Ron Sher, owner of Third Place Books.
When Sher looked beyond the empty storefronts of a nearly deserted mall in Lake Forest Park, he envisioned a thriving bookstore. He also saw the potential of a third place where readers linger over a cup of coffee, neighbors see each other often, and people drop by to be “at home” in public. He leased much of the mall’s top floor and sublet space to several local restaurants, including the Honey Bear Bakery, a much loved Seattle institution. Rather than building another standard food court, he created the Commons, and furnished it with comfortable places to sit, a giant chessboard and a stage.
Third Place Books opened in November 1998, and while the community immediately embraced this vibrant new business, the Commons presented a challenge. Book store staff couldn’t take on a full schedule of public events, and without leadership from the community, the future of the space was uncertain. That is until one fateful morning when Lake Forest Park resident Anne Stadler bumped into Ron Sher in line for coffee at the Honey Bear. A visionary who shared Ron’s passion for community and an activist with plenty of practical experience, Anne proposed setting up a nonprofit organization to manage the Commons. Ron encouraged her to do it, and the adventure began.
With the support of community constituents, Friends of Third Place Commons was formed in the fall of 1999, and became a 501(c3) organization in 2000. In 2010, the meeting room in Commons was named after Anne and Dave Stadler, our earliest champions.
Interest in the Commons multiplied with every event, and we now host over 800 free public programs every year for people of all ages and interests. A peek at our monthly calendar reveals the range of regular activities, including play dates for infants and their caregivers, concerts by Shoreline School District students, educational opportunities for adults, and activities for seniors.
From the beginning, Third Place Books has provided free author readings and live music on Friday and Saturday nights. It also pays for lights, heat and maintenance in the Commons, and lends its expert setup crew and sound technicians. Ron Sher’s ongoing commitment through this remarkable in-kind donation has made the Commons possible. Seattle Times’ Pacific Northwest magazine profiled Ron in an article in early November, 2003: “Community Builder: In Ron Sher’s ‘third places’,people come first.”
In 2003, the Lake Forest Park branch of the King County Library System (located on the lower floor of the mall) agreed to offer wireless Internet access throughout the Commons. In a community that does not have equal access to high-speed Internet, residents can work from a “home away from home” at the Commons.
In response to requests from the community for a local market, Friends of Third Place Commons opened the Lake Forest Park Farmers Market in 2005. The City of Lake Forest Park helped with initial seed money, and Madison Marquette generously gives us space. The Lake Forest Park Farmers Market is organized and managed by staff of Third Place Commons.
From Mothers Day through the third week of October, farmers and artisan food processors set up in the parking lot in front of the Professional Building every Sunday morning. The market has grown into one of the most successful suburban markets in the region, with over 45 vendors, and an average of 7000 shoppers each week. Once during the summer, we include a crafts market; and during the winter holidays, we bring the market indoors for two special events.
In partnership with other nonprofit organizations and agencies, Friends of Third Place Commons sponsors a food assistance program through the Lake Forest Park Farmers Market. Generous donors, including Church of the Redeemer, enable the distribution of Market Bucks to individuals and families who may otherwise lack access to fresh and nutritious food.