The sanctuary of neighborhood bars: Talking with Rosie Schaap
NEIGHBORISTA! talks with “Drinking with Men” author Rosie Schaap about the enduring qualities of the local watering hole.
“You can drink at home. A bar gives you relief from isolation. When you are a regular, it gives you a community too.” So writes author, bartender, This American Life contributor, and New York Times Magazine columnist Rosie Schaap in her memoir, Drinking with Men (Riverhead Books, 2012). She describes bars as places of comfort, safety, and support. She doesn’t leave out the occasional embarrassment, regret, and hangovers, but it’s the sense of people coming together to commune and to create that prevails throughout her story.
She took time to answer a few questions via email about the book and neighborhood bars in general for NEIGHBORISTA!
You write about what makes a corner bar different from a sports bar or from the multiple subcategories of gay bars. What distinguishes a neighborhood bar from other kinds?
A neighborhood bar always is, and always feels, rooted in its community. There’s a clear sense of place. Although there may be visitors from elsewhere, it mostly serves people who already happen to be neighbors, and helps to bring them together.
I’ve seen friendships develop in the little Brooklyn bar where I work—and then I see those friends, together, around the neighborhood at cafes, and restaurants, and at parties in our homes. But those relationships started at the bar, and grew from there.
Where are some places you’d like to do more field research on neighborhood bars?
In the United States, I’d like to spend some serious time exploring New Orleans’s bar culture, and getting to know Milwaukee’s. Outside of the U.S., Belfast has become one of my favorite bar cities, and I’d like to visit more often.
What’s your sense of what good bars do for a neighborhood?
They help both to cultivate and to galvanize community. I often tell people why I think it’s worthwhile to get familiar with their neighborhood pub, even if they’re not that interested in drinking, or in becoming regulars. Bartenders, and bar owners, and bar regulars, make it their business to know what’s going on in their neighborhood, to keep an eye on people (in a protective way, not a creepy, stalky way!). And since bar hours run much later than most other businesses, bars can be vital safe havens—places to duck into late at night if, say, you have a feeling someone’s followed you up the block from the subway station. A good bar will look after you until any danger, real or imagined, has passed.
I’ve often said that bars are like community centers—for people who happen to drink. But they’re much more than places to drink; they’re places to drink in the company of a great variety of other people. (And when you’re a regular, a local bar is also a very handy place to leave that extra set of house keys).
When you talk about neighborhood bars as safe havens or community centers, what do you think most contributes to that sense of community? The location? The patrons? The bartenders?
All of these things matter. But it’s the mix of people (both patrons and staff) that matters most, and, as with so many situations, the chemistry among them.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is when you organize your friends into a table reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Good World Bar just before it shuts down. It sounds like the performance touched everyone who took part. Have you seen some other ways that bar communities cultivate creative acts on a similarly intimate level?
Thanks. That was a pretty special, sweet, unforgettable afternoon. And yes, I’ve seen tremendous displays of creativity in many bars. I ran reading series for years at Good World and the Fish Bar, so they’re natural locations for bringing writers and readers together. I’ve seen bands form composed of regulars and bar staff. I’ve seen back-room film festivals, dance performances, and drawing lessons in bars.
But what I’ve found most valuable from drinking among people whose work is so often so different from my own is that I’ve learned so much in bars about art, about literature, about music and dance and all sorts of creative undertakings—and in such a fun, undidactic, natural way. Just people talking about, and sharing, what they know and what they love. And I think a pint and a bit of whiskey helps people feel comfortable and relaxed enough to share their enthusiasms without feeling self-conscious. To me, it’s that exchange of information—what each regular brings with her or him to the bar, the things he or she is most excited and passionate about—that makes bar life so rewarding.