As Seen in The Eagle Tribune - March 27, 2006
Get Your Geek On
By Rosemary Ford
Harold Belbin lives at the center of North of Boston geekdom. Or, he likes to think so.
"The world headquarters of geekdom is Merrimac," said Belbin, the 44-year-old owner of Visiting Geeks, a computer service company.
And now's a good time to be a geek. In film, television and fashion, it's a geek's world these days.
Geeks get the girls (and guys), save the day in TV and film, set fashion trends on the streets, and know how to use all those cool gadgets.
"It's a golden age for geeks. I'm just glad to be alive in it," said "Beauty and the Geek" winner Josh Herman of Michigan.
"Once upon a time," said Haverhill horror author and comic book geek Chris Golden, "someone said, 'Geeks shall inherit the Earth.' And they did."
Hold on a minute: What exactly is a geek? No, it's not just a really smart, nerdy teenager. Rather, it's someone who is dutifully passionate about something, whether it be technology, comic books, or band camp, and who has a coinciding disregard for the mainstream.
"It's about uniqueness, not following the status quo," said Herman, who has become a poster boy for geek success. "I think you watch a show like 'Beauty and the Geek' and you see there are more than just geeks, there is a lot more to them than being smart. They are not what you have been taught in after-school specials."
The idea that geek equals cool may have started with the Internet. Geeks could find each other and gather to thank the ultimate geek tool, the World Wide Web.
"With the proliferation of the Internet, you could find geeks that share your interests," Herman said. "Who doesn't want to feel like there is another person like them out there?"
It could also be the resurgence in popularity of comic books.
"The comic book is no longer the domain of the smart, anti-social person who can't get dates," said Robert J. Thompson, former president of the American Popular Culture association.
Others say it's rich uber-geeks such as Bill Gates, and the incomes they command.
"This is a guy who can clearly afford a better haircut than he has, and clearly he chooses to keep sporting it," said Thompson, who heads Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.
And don't forget all the other wealthy software developers and successful dot.comers.
"If you look at the top 100 richest people in the world, most of them are geeks," Belbin said. "If that is what it means to be a geek, I have no trouble being in that group at all.
"Maybe geek means extreme competence."
Neil Feineman capitalized on the trend in his book, "Geek Chic," which explores the world of geekdom through history, videogames, culinary innovations and fashion trends.
"Wish I could credit myself for the invention (of the term), but it is not me," said Feineman, who works for Napster.
In the olden days, being called a geek meant years of therapy. It stopped being a pejorative word when geeks took it back and made it cool, like gay people and the connotations of the word "queer," Feineman said.
"I think people tend to use geek as a sense of pride," he said. "It's so ironically uncool, which is kind of cool I guess."
Today people wear the label geek with pride. According to Thompson, it's almost better than being a jock.
"We have always had this love of the underdog," Thompson said. "It's part of the American identity."
While being a geek may be the "it" thing, there are different subgroups of geeks from which to draw inspiration. The most common are techno-geeks, such as Belbin and ThinkGeek.com founder Scott Smith. This type of geek has probably done the most for making geeks cool.
"Computers are more common, and some of the most successful, richest guys in the world are computer geeks. That's how they started out and made their success," Smith said, pointing to items such as the iPod as barrier breakers.
Then there are the music geeks, like Juris Magarau of North Andover. The former disc jockey works at Newbury Comics in Salem, N.H.
"To be a complete music geek, you can't know one genre," Magarau said. "Once you get into a certain artist you really like, you are going to buy everything that person puts out, every compilation they are on, or albums they may have produced."
Then the music geek must move on to other artists. Magarau recently paired down his own collection from 32,000 albums to 9,000.
"I've always loved music," said Magarau, who says he's been to thousands of concerts, but he believes his music geekdom is pretty low-key. "There are always going to be people that are more knowledgeable than you."
Golden, a comic book geek, says Hollywood is run by geeks, which is the reason behind the upswing in comic book movies and "Lord of the Rings" sagas.
"These movies have been good movies, and maybe it's not as weird to like that stuff, because those movies have become entrenched in pop culture," Golden said.
Hollywood also turned geeks into heroes, with hits such as "Napoleon Dynamite" and "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," or more recently "She's the Man." While geeks have been in films for a long time, they were usually the butt of jokes. Lately, however, they've become known for getting the girl or guy.
"Most of the geeks I know do get the pretty girl," Belbin said. "Every woman wants a bad boy in the beginning, but they want to marry a geek."
And geeks love being the hero.
"It's their job to be a hero, to come in and help when no one else can," Belbin said. "That was the spirit of 'Star Trek,' the spirit of NASA, and the spirit of most geeks you meet. They can't wait to come in and help. That's a great thing to be known for."
To Golden, the main element in the transformation of geeks from losers to hipsters comes from girls, especially the ones in comics.
"Girls have always been the reason why it wasn't cool to be a geek," Golden said. "The lion's share of geeks were boys, and boys did not want to seem like geeks because of girls. Now that girls are geeking out, too, it's not so uncool anymore."
As with any trend, there are always the people who jump on the bandwagon. These days, it's easy to spot an imposter as opposed to the real geek: Just look for the person who isn't dressed like one.
Argyle sweaters, colored tights and big glasses are all styles that a few years ago only the tragically unhip would have donned. But thanks to pop culture icons such as "The O.C.'s" Seth Cohen, many fashion-conscious teenagers are "tapping into (their) inner geek," while embracing their love for sci-fi classics such as "The Lord of the Rings" (or LOTR to sci-fi geeks).
"One way to be a geek is to be pretty boring. You are not going to find any fashion trend-setters among the geek squad," said Belbin, who calls himself a geek, which by his definition means someone comfortable with technology.
The essential pieces of the geek look include cropped plaid pants, sweater vests, penny loafers and cardigans with oversized buttons. They're supposed to look almost as if you found them in your grandpa's closet.
"Dressing like a geek is a good sign of an imposter," said Belbin, who typically wears a polo and khakis to work.
Some fashion experts believe the look is empowering teens to be exactly who they are, and to be different without worrying about what other people think. So if you want to wear a T-shirt declaring your love for "X-Men," go for it. If you just love the way your bright purple tights look with your ballet flats, sport them. If you've got pride in you're mathematics, go ahead and where that "Math is radical" T-shirt, or perhaps, "Einstein is my homie."
Warning: While geeks have love, don't call them nerds.
"Nerds are socially dysfunctional and have issues with cleanliness and dress," Belbin said.
Occasionally, Belbin does get teased.
"Every once and a while, people go, 'Oh, ha, ha, you are a geek," said Belbin, who can laugh about it, all the way to the bank. "We just go, 'Yes, we are. Don't forget to pay cash or check at the end of the visit.'"