I kid you not, this was the highlight on my trip to San Francisco! My equally geeky cousin introduced me to one of the coolest comic book stores in the country during my visit back in September last year.
I had a chance to chat with one of Isotopes co-owners, James Sime.
The minute I walked into the store, I spotted a guy wearing a red pinstripe zoot suit with a hairstyle that would give Wayne Static (God bless his soul!) a run for his money.
I saw him being extremely helpful to his customers. You can really tell how passionate he is and that he really knows his stuff. There were a bunch of things lined up against the wall, almost close to the ceiling. They appear to be toilet seats with drawings on them.
I leaned in a bit closer and it turns out they were not “regular bar-bathroom doodles”, but these were works of art by famous comic book artists that has visited the store over the years.
I introduced myself to James and I started to learn more about him and his store. I later interviewed James through email, the result of which follows:
The People Behind Isotope Comic Book Lounge
Isotope is, by design, a tiny staff. Kirsten Baldock is the co-owner, along with myself. Kirsten is a true comics retail visionary who is incredibleat turning even the wildest of dreams into reality. She is also a librarian, a flying trapeze artist, and the most amazing cocktail mixologist featured at our special events. Every Sunday is Mike Rawley. A writer, a poet and one heck of a great dungeon master. DJ Bearzbub is the store’s unofficial mix master who makes our parties magical.
And we also have the coolest, friendliest, comic-loving community who all act as unofficial hosts and hostesses for newcomers. It’s a beautiful thing!
James’ Inspiration to Open the Store
I’m a lifelong comic reader and evangelist, and my greatest joys and talents is turning people on to really wonderful comics, especially the cool obscure stuff they don’t know about yet! I’ve always loved comic stores and spent a lot of time going to them. Back before the Isotope I was a bartender in expensive restaurants and swanky bars and I always wondered “why isn’t anybody making a store for women?” and “why aren’t stores being designed to appeal to people who don’t already read comics?” and “why aren’t the stores doing the crazy fun community stuff I wish they were?” and “why can’t comic stores be swanky and sexy like these expensive martini bars I work in?”
Eventually I realized asking those questions wasn’t helping… I needed to just shut up and make it! So we did it ourselves. And here we are, 13 years later, still rocking and rolling!
What Makes Isotope Unique from other Comic Book Stores
I think most importantly it’s the people who shop here. I had three target audiences in mind when I opened the store… Women. People who were just discovering comics. And old wolves (like myself) who aren’t bitter. And that is totally the clientele we have, it’s a really great, fun crowd.
And the Isotope is the first of its kind in the world of comics. Featuring an original art gallery, a stage for live shows, custom leather sofas to kick back on, there’s a place for artists to work on their comics, an annual comic making school, and an entire floor dedicated to hand-made comics and zines. We’ve always been super supportive of new creators, including doing 10 years of our own Mini Comic Award, where we helped winners get hooked up with publishers and the comics media. Supporting our creative community, y’know?
But probably the thing we’re most known for is our events. Instead of hosting just a vanilla signing with your favorite comic creators, which can be so awkward and impersonal, we bring in our house DJ to spin some tunes, we open up the bar, Kirsten designs an entire menu of original cocktails based on the creator’s works, and we throw a big crazy party to give everyone a chance to actually hang out and have fun with their favorite comic creators.
I am blessed that people love what we do so much!
Photos courtesy of James Sime
So what’s the deal with all these artful toilet bowl seats?
(laugh) Yeah, they are ridiculous! The Isotope is home to the world’s only museum dedicated to famous comic artists drawing on toilet seats, called appropriately, The Comic Rockstars Toilet Seat Museum. It started as a total fluke back in 2001. I had artist/writer Brian Wood (the writer behind the all-female X-MEN comic you’ve probably heard about and also Vertigo’s DMZ) in for an in-store and I gave the guy more beer than I should have. And Brian vandalized up my bathroom! The walls, not so great, but the lid was awesome! So I hung his lid in the gallery with the rest of my original art. And then Rick Remender stopped in (CAPTAIN AMERICA, BLACK SCIENCE) and Rick was like, “Why does Brian Wood get a toilet seat? What do I have to do to get one of those?” That night I went to Home Depot and I bought five and it’s just grown and grown and grown! (laugh)!
And that crazy museum is now featured in San Francisco guidebooks all over the world! We, quite literally, have folks from all over Europe who come in to just look at the lids every month. And it’s pretty amazing how the museum has gotten a ridiculous amount of press! My favorites are definitely having it featured on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (cool, right?!) and also a number of times on Boing Boing, I think they keep forgetting that they’re written about it before, but I’m not going to complain, Boing Boing is one of my favorite sites!
The whole thing is awesome and also totally silly.
Acknowledging Harassment in the Geek/Comic Book Industry
It wasn’t in response to an incident, actually. And thankfully! I wrote our official harassment policy because we are proactive in bringing the change we want to see. It’s time for the WHOLE INDUSTRY to think about how comics culture is changing and DO SOMETHING POSITIVE to make it a welcoming place for everyone.
The Isotope has a fantastic reputation and is a true influence on the world of comics so as an industry leader I had to step up and make our voice heard! And if enough of our fellow leaders join us in making a stand it will change the world of comics for the better, forever. We may be the first comic store with an Official Harassment Policy, but we’re going to push our entire community forward and ensure we’re just the first drop in the tsunami of social change that is to come.
It was challenging policy to write, as I wanted it to be as charming, thoughtful and caring as the people who attend our events truly are, so I put several months into crafting it. I wanted to set a high bar for interactions because we know that the people we want to spend our time around will always try rise to a higher expectation. Most of all I wanted, instead of just a list of don’t-dos, I wanted it to be empowering. Our community gets the final say, even when it comes to our staff and featured guests. We clearly define our set of rules and procedures, give everyone a chance to fix one social faux pas, and then if the person can’t behave in polite society it’s time for them to go elsewhere. And we put that power in the community’s hands. “YES, YOU HAVE THE POWER HERE. AND YES, WE WILL BACK YOU.”
It’s an elegant and gentle and empowering policy.
I *love* it. http://isotopecomics.com/index.php/harassment-policy
Favorite Artists and Visitors
Oh that’s hard to choose! I think the most fun we’ve had has been doing stuff with Darwyn Cooke who did the best superhero comic of the last 15 years, DC COMICS: THE NEW FRONTIER. Everybody at the Isotope loves Dar!
But… arg… other stuff we’ve done like the live art/ DJ jam for Noise Pop Music Fest with Ben Templesmith, our Scotch tasting with Warren Ellis, an armwrestlethon with Ed Brubaker, and just big crazy, outrageous parties with Grant Morrison and JH Williams III and Bryan Lee O’Malley? It’s just so hard to pick, there are just so many cool folks we love doing events with!
Which artist(s)/celebrity would you love to come to your store to do a sigining/appearance?
My all-time favorite author is Peter Milligan, he did a book that’s finally back in print called ENIGMA which is my favorite thing ever, so I would love to have him in! Fiona Staples, the artist of SAGA, Jason Aaron who is doing THOR, Babs Tarr the new artist on BATGIRL, I’d definitely like to do something with them this next year!
Isotope’s next two events are with SAGA author Brian K. Vaughan (coming up on January 9th) and a late January / early February event with comics rockstar Paul Pope. So we’ve got great stuff lined up already!
And (laugh) I actually invited Debbie Harry & Blondie in to play an intimate show at the Isotope. It’s probably a crazy pipe dream but they’re cool comic nerds, so man… maybe that will happen some day!
What has been the most memorable thing to have ever happened in Isotope?
My absolute favorite band from Japan, PINE*am, played a show at my shop when they were over on their only tour of America!
Most folks don’t know them here in the States, but imagine if Devo was three cute Japanese girls who sang about space and chocolate and bunnies and you’ll get the idea. Fans of Anamanaguchi and Momoiro Clover Z would probably dig them a lot. I played a lot of PINE*am albums during those very late nights when my staff and I were building the Isotope, so to have them play here, on our “world’s highest stage”… was AMAZING!
What has been the toughest thing that you and/or Isotope has ever had to deal with?
Small business is hard. Like, really really, hard sometimes. And the comics industry with its high risk / low reward margins, endless petty little wars, and distribution headaches can be especially depressing. So there can be struggles. There’s a lot of late nights and long hours. You eventually learn to just let yourself have a cry when you need to cry, you bleed when you need to bleed. And you never let that crap kill your love.
Where do you see Isotope in the future?
I see a future where I’m still behind the counter, doing personal shopping and finding people things that make their heart dance with joy! Redefining what a comic store customer experience is and can be. Making more positive changes in the industry. Getting better at what we do. And continuing on the mad visionary path that brought Isotope and MorrisonCon to life. Oh! And there’s *gotta* be a way to get an Isotope up on the International Space Station, right?! I have the perfect staff to run my sexy Zero G shop, she’s been doing Space Camp astronaut training with NASA for a couple years now. Hey Geri-Ayn Gaul… let’s make this happen!
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