Sunlight streams through the tall windows of the Third Space café in Smithfield, adding a warm glow to the high ceilings and brightly painted walls.This cheerful, airy space features art from local artists and bookshelves crammed with books, magazines, and children’s craft supplies.
Fresh breakfast and lunch items such as salads, soups, tarts, sandwiches, and of course coffee and tea, are offered at a reasonable rate. A sign on the wall proclaims, “Up here, it’s okay to talk to strangers,” adding to the welcoming atmosphere. Friends gather at small tables, talking and laughing together while other customers sit alone, content to gaze out the windows or work on their laptops, a warm cup of coffee in hand.
Third Space opened in February 2012 with the intention of being a casual, creative space where the Smithfield community could come together. Located just one mile from the center of the city, Smithfield has been at the heart of the social and commercial life of Dublin for centuries. The area saw plenty of residential and business development during what’s known colloquially as the Celtic Tiger years, so named due to the period of rapid economic growth Ireland experienced from 1995 to 2008. Like most Dublin neighborhoods, Smithfield suffered during the recent worldwide economic recession, but the area is experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to new businesses. The rejuvenated neighborhood is also home to apartments and court and legal-related services buildings. The one thing Smithfield was lacking was community space – somewhere for people to gather with friends and neighbors.
Third Space was started by owner Sean Mullen to fulfill that community need. “The motivation for it comes from what I believe is a mandate that we have to seek the welfare, the Shalom, of the city,” Mullen said. “My belief is that when you provide stuff like this, that what you are doing is creating an opportunity for the city to flourish and for change to happen.” Mullen picked the name from a term coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. People spend most of their time at home (their first space) and work (their second space), but they also need a third space to gather with neighbors in an informal setting on a regular basis.
Mullen intentionally set out to create a third space by choosing a location where there was a high population of residents and office workers but no gathering place for the community. He got bits of advice on interior design from friends and acquaintances, including an architecture student, the builder, and tradesmen working on the space. The result is a comfortable, sunny room painted in shades of yellow and green featuring soft lighting and a combination of warm wood, shiny metal, and brick wall accents that has received an overwhelmingly positive response from customers.
But it’s not just the look of the place that people respond to; it’s also the feel of the place – the way new and regular customers are greeted as old friends, the special care the staff takes in food preparation and customer service, the casual atmosphere, and the community involvement. “It is meant to be of the community, for the community, so it’s of and for whoever happens to live and work in this area,” Mullen said. “They’re the ones who shape it.” People of all sorts – young and old, blue- and white-collar workers, singles and families – feel at home at Third Space. “Part of the reason people love this space, though they may not necessarily realize it, is that it reflects something of the character of God,” Mullen said. “We tried to create space that would be welcoming to everybody, so from every spectrum of society. One of our delights is that’s happened.”
Third Space was not specifically started as a Christian mission venture, and they don’t promote themselves in that way. Rather, they have created a self-sustaining social enterprise that doesn’t require philanthropic or government funding. “There can be and there should be a whole variety of expressions of running a business,” Mullen said. “Running something that is for charity, running something that is a ministry, running something that is aimed primarily at social benefit – that’s what we’re doing.” Making a profit is a business necessity, but Mullen says that there are other measures that are just as important to Third Space. “The measure of how much we are affecting our community, how much social creativity is going on in here, is another measure, and that matters too.” The Christian ethos of loving and respecting others while contributing to the well-being of the community permeates Third Space, and is reflected in how the business is run and in the diversity of the staff who come from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and faiths. Some staffers couldn’t find work anywhere else, some have food service experience and some do not, but they all share a core value. “Staff members are required to understand and own the values of Third Space, the way we treat our customers, the importance of community, and the sense that we seek to be good for this part of the city,” Mullen said. “There is a team spirit here.”
Regular customers feel at home at Third Space. A staff member recently received a text message from a man whose wife is a regular, stating that she had been taken into the hospital and was seriously ill. They asked for Third Space to pray for her. Another regular customer from a nearby office conveyed to Mullen that Third Space has become an important and special place for workers there. “You have transformed our working week,” he told Mullen. On Valentine’s Day, a regular asked Third Space to hide several bunches of flowers in their office until he could take them home to his wife. Another customer recently posted on Twitter, “I was thinking about leaving Smithfield when my lease was up, but Third Space has changed my mind!” New patrons also feel the sense of family. During the lunchtime rush, customers are often forced to share a table during meals, something no one seems to mind. One day, five people were crammed around a table meant for four, and even though they were strangers, soon they were engaged in a friendly, animated conversation.
As friendships are made at Third Space, the community of Smithfield is coming together. Third Space recently started offering even more opportunities for connections. They host a Word Café for book clubs and writing groups on Tuesdays, a Craft Café for craft groups, knitting clubs, and cooking classes on Wednesdays, and a Music Café featuring a variety of musical performances on Thursdays.
Now more than a year after opening, Third Space is an uplifting force in Smithfield, living out their motto, “Changing the City, One Table at a Time.” In the heart of Dublin, Mullen and his staff have created a friendly, loving third space where all are welcome. During a recent visit, a regular customer praised Third Space for its positive presence in the community. “It’s a wonderful thing that you have done,” he said.
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photographed by Robert Johnson
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2013]