Community Trifecta

Similarities among the comic-book shop, the barbershop, and the workshop

Community Trifecta

Unmatched in their ability to attract all sorts of personalities, the comic-book shop, the barbershop, and the writing workshop can be the vanguard of unwarranted advice, unmitigated trash talk, and unexamined gatekeeping. But they’re also safe havens for misfits and modest geniuses — or the unacknowledged scholars, as the film “High Fidelity” puts it.

The linguists might call these spaces physical manifestations of discourse communities, always signaling the behaviors in speech and writing that you belong (or don’t).

Most of us who’ve been in all three spaces know, inevitably, that someone will come through the doors with zero interest in the services provided. Not there to get a fresh cut; to buy a trade paperback; to do the assigned readings. That person is simply there to keep, as any HBCU band might put it, “TALKING OUT THE SIDE OF [THEIR] NECK!”

Sometimes, these folks are easy enough to ignore, whether they’re pontificating about Thanos, Jordan, or iambic pentameter, or just playing the contrarian, misreading and misjudging every interaction.

But even at these people’s most tedious, it’s worth pointing out that what draws them to the proverbial shop is similar to the impulse that brings everyone there: the promise of a community with specialized knowledge or discourse.

In other words, we’re all there for the “talkiness” of it all. We’re all trying to push back a sense of isolation.

We also tend to love the rituals of these places, the frequency in seeing familiar faces, the automatic banter that rises like scent after burning incense. New comics come out every week. Folks try to schedule their two-week shape-ups and cuts. A new poem is due by the start of class. The rhythms are almost metronomic.

Between those ticks and tocks exists a hallowed breath: a pause. There have been times in a barber’s chair where I am reminded of how little tenderness we experience — so much so, that I’ve noticed the barber’s tactile kindness in fussing over an edge line.

And I have seen in the comic shop genuine delight from the owner as my children draw pictures of Pokémon with board markers. The writing workshop is not so different when it’s working well. Delight can’t be manufactured, only encouraged through how we read each other’s work and what we learn to say about it.

“Less is more” is still a vital maxim in all three spaces. One quickly learns that cleverness without community lasts about as long as insincere laughter. Genuine attention echoes forever. In all three spaces, what’s really being tested is how people wield their knowledge.

Do they weaponize it? Compare it to others and then condescend? Or do they use their knowledge to listen?

As the poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote, “Are we not of interest to each other?”

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