Anyone who’s ever stopped into Third Place Coffee House on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh for a cup of fresh ground coffee or chai, has probably found Rich Futrell behind the counter. Or not.

In August 2002, Futrell disappeared to take a break from his business to explore new worlds with the Peace Corps as a small business consultant. He was sent to Morocco and traveled around for the first few months in an intensive period of language and lifestyle training. Finally in November, he arrived at his assignment in Gigou, located in the Atlas Mountains, “a totally arid fertile village set in a crater, littered with volcanic stones.”

Futrell lived and worked with the rug weavers of Ait Hamsa, a community of Berber women who Futrell affectionately named the “Berber Ladies Gang,” or the BLG. The BLG invited Futrell into their world, seldom seen by men of any caste. He dined with them, exchanging stories over buttery couscous, worked side-by-side with them and helped them to establish a buying community in which the BLG could purchase materials in bulk and develop a stronger hand in dealing with a corrupt bureaucracy.

Futrell found these women more interesting than their male counterparts. While their husbands sat in cafes chatting over water pipes, the women were home raising children, caring for the house, cooking and, in many cases, providing the sole income for the family by selling their elaborate woven rugs. The men were continually attempting to draw Futrell’s interest away from spending time with the rug weavers, yet the BLG won his heart.

Although Futrell intended to remain in Morocco under a two-year contract with the Peace Corps, war broke out in Iraq and quickly changed his plans. He was evacuated first to Casablanca and finally home. Fortunately, while he was gone, a deal to sell his coffee house fell through.

“It was kind of a blessing in disguise. Although I had said all of my goodbyes, not planning on returning anytime soon, I had a job to come home to. I’ve been back over four months now, spending the first two weeks sitting outside on my deck, not believing I was here. It happened so quickly.”

So Futrell’s back behind the counter, making tea, coffee and fresh sandwiches for lunch. Futrell still intends to sell Third Place–named for anthropologist’s Ray Oldenburg’s theory on community building–when the right buyer comes along. Then, he has a vague plan for returning to Chicago to be closer to his family; a need undoubtedly fed by living with the Berbers, where family life is second to none.

For now, when customers come up to Futrell and ask where he’s been, he produces an I-Mac with a revolving slideshow of photos exhibiting the landscape of Gigou, its environs and most vividly, the women of Ait Hamsa.

The rest of us can view a selection of those photos in September when they go on display at the cafe inside Exploris, 201 East Hargett St. in Raleigh.