Interview: James Sime on Isotope, APE and Comics

Interview: James Sime on Isotope, APE and Comics

james-sime-isotopeI’ve known James Sime for several years now. What I’ve learned about the proprietor of San Francisco’s Isotope Comics Lounge and his staff is that they always strive to make Isotope quite different from your average comic book store. Currently, James and his staff are preparing for some big upcoming events.

On October 17th and 18th at the Concourse is the annual Alternative Press Expo (APE), and for the seventh year, James and his staff will be handing out the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics at their 8th annual APE Aftermath on the 17th. But this year, James is also having comic artist-extraordinaire Dean Haspiel for an in-store event on Friday the 16th, the night before APE is officially underway. Recently, I had a short talk with Sime about these events, his store, and well, comics.

Joey Pangilinan: What makes selling comics so fun for you?

James Sime: Well, it’s the greatest job in the universe. I love comics, and I love people. And I love that every time someone comes into the store,  I instantly have something in common with them. Even if they don’t already read comics, they’re interested in reading comics.

They’re like “Well, that looks neat, I’ll go in the front door of that place.” I love that I have that instant connection with people through comics. But I was freaked out that first day. It was terrifying. I was terrified the first three years.

JP: When did you know you had a good grasp on how to run the store?

JS: I always thought that long before I owned a comic book store, that what I wanted to do with a comic book store would be awesome. I always thought comic book stores should have an art gallery, it should have a lounge, they should throw events, they should have tons of community stuff to support. If you make some little book in your basement, they should be excited to see it. I always thought one of the big problems about comic stores is that I thought they were kind of unfriendly to new readers and women.

I’m from the bar industry, and the old bar adage anywhere there is five women twenty-five men will find them. And I was like “Why isn’t somebody making a comic book store for women? Women love to read. They love comics. What’s wrong with them?” So I made a comic book store for girls, and boys, too.

JP: Is that the biggest carry-over lesson you learned from life as a bartender to now as a comic store owner?

JS: I loved bartending, and learned a lot of different stuff working in restaurant industry jobs. Before I did this, all my money that I made waiting tables, or bartending was all tips, so if you sucked at your job, you starved to death, and you lost your apartment. I loved that. I always thought that was fun. I was an independent contractor. I loved that. But as much as I love booze, and loved that job, I like comics way, way, way more. So I just thought somebody should do what I wanted, nobody would do it, so I started it myself.

I never owned a business before, I didn’t know anything about the actual running of a business, but I hoped. I just crossed my fingers and I hoped. And I figured that if I made a big enough of a noise, and I bombed, that someone else would rip off my model, and I could move to their city, and I could shop at their store. And if I didn’t bomb, then I would have the best job conceivable, in the universe.

Like I can’t conceive of a job that’s cooler than this.

JP: What gave you the idea to give out the Isotope Award?

JS: I was looking at the awards in the comic industry, and I carry a ton of mini’s, and I love mini’s, and was like, “there’s no award for mini-comics?” It just seemed like such a slap in the face to what I think is not just the ground floor for the art-form; it’s the cheapest, it’s the easiest, it’s the fastest, but it’s also a ton of people start off making mini-comics who end up doing huge books. And like, “why is there no award for mini-comics, and I was like f**k it, I’m gonna do my award. If no one is gonna make that award, fine. I’ll make my own.”

I consider them my Miss America for a year, and do whatever I can to get their book pressed, and them interviews, and their books out to reviews, to under publisher’s noses. Just anything I can do for those boys and girls. I love it because it supports something that I love, and I also think it’s really sweet. I’ve made wonderful friends with these people I would never have met otherwise because they’re toiling away in their underground, and nobody knows who they are because nobody has ever seen their book.

JP: How excited are you going through all of this year’s mini-comic entries?

JS: There’s some really good stuff. There’s some stuff that really surprised me a lot. I think me and the judges are gonna have a really hard time. I’m really excited about the judges that I have this year. For the people who either win or don’t win, these are the people in the comic industry that you want seeing your comic. There’s Tom Spurgeon, who writes Comics Reporter.

Everybody who is in the comics industry reads that pretty much everyday. Then there’s Brett Warnock, publisher at Top Shelf. He also writes Top Shelf’s blog, Top Shelf also has web comics. So just those two judges alone, having your book under their nose is really good for your career, even if you come in last place, it’s still a good move.

The other judges are Eva Volin, a librarian. She buys books for libraries, and also reviews comics online. She is awesome. And then there is Kirsten Baldock, who is also a librarian, who is in charge of the city of Oakland’s adult graphic novel section. And I’m a retailer, I sell funny-books.

JP: What separates APE Aftermath from the rest of your events throughout the year?

JS: I think APE weekend is the most fun weekend for comics in San Francisco. F**k. I think it’s the most fun weekend in San Francisco. It’s all of these people who are excited about their comics, making new stuff coming to San Francisco from all over the country with a head of steam. They wanna go to APE, and have to coolest book at APE, and wanna meet the other people who are making the other coolest book at APE. It’s really community based.

So of course, I wanna throw a big bash in celebration of that, because that’s fun. In my second year, I just decided to do my own award. So that to me, makes it way the best party I throw all year. You get to discover someone new who’s amazing because nobody has ever won that award. It’s like the family of comics. I like it more than anything else.

It’s my biggest party of the year. My biggest, my best, my favorite. At 8, Brett Warnock comes in and does Top Shelf Happy Hour, and he brings in all sorts of his creators that work for his company. And he makes a killer margarita. Kirsten runs my bar for the rest of the event, but that hour is Brett’s time to shine. At 10pm is when I hand out my mini-comic award. Grand ceremony. I’ll have last year’s winner, Jonas-Madden Connor helping me give the prize to this year’s winner to whoever that may be, I don’t know yet.

That’s a rager. That’s a really, really killer party. DJ Bearzbub, who I think is one of the best DJs in the city, is coming in to spin some records. Come meet people, mingle, and talk comics.

JP: You have Dean Haspiel coming in on Friday as well. How excited for that are you? Like you said previously, he almost never comes out west.

JS: Normally, when I have a superstar come in, I know them before. I don’t ever want to have somebody come in who isn’t gonna have fun coming in, or somebody that’s not gonna be fun for my customers to meet. Fortunately, in the comics industry, almost everyone in the comics industry is super nice and super sweet. So Dean, I don’t know Dean. So there’s a little level of nervousness about that, because I don’t know the guy.

But everybody who I know who knows Dean; they love him, and Dean is apparently a bit of a wild man. So I think Dean’s gonna be a lot of fun. Emailing back and forth with him, he’s really cool. I’m super-excited. I love his comics. He’s a genius. He’s gonna be doing some live art.

JP: What advice would you have for new comics creators and new retailers?

JS: For comic creators, one of the best pieces of advice that I have is have a great title, have something that’s easy to talk about, that sounds fun only in a couple sentences. One of the games that I like to play with some of the creators that bring in some of their first work, is I’ll have them leave the store, and I’ll place their comic somewhere in my store, and place it in plain sight, and have them come back in, and ask them “how fast can you find your book?”

And if you can’t find your book, you f**ked up on the cover. Like you need a new logo, you need a new cover design. You need to find those books fast. Instantly. So ideally, you can stand at the front door of my store, and find your comic wherever I’ve hidden it. That’s really, really key for people who are making comics. You want people to be able to recognize your book, you want them to be able to see it, and you want them to be able to come back issue after issue, or collection after collection.

For a starting off retailer: Before you open up your store, ask yourself, “Do you love comics?” because that’s the rest of your life, everyday all the time, comics, comics, comics. And two, “Do you love people?” If those are your two favorite things in the world, you’ll be fine. If they’re not, then you’re gonna give up when the times get tough. It’s a small business. Times are always gonna get tough. You always gotta scratch your way through. You gotta love those things. More than anything else, I think that’s key.

I do lots of events with my store. There’s always something going on, and the reason why I think that’s important is because you can pretty much buy all these comics online. So why are people leaving the house? It’s San Francisco. People don’t have to leave the house. They can stay in the house and just be wired all day. But people leave the house, and they leave the house for specific reasons. And I want my business, every single minute, to be a great reason to leave the house. I want you to be like “I cant wait to get the hell outta the house, and have James and his staff help me find the next amazing thing that I need on my tour of the comic industry.”

I’m not selling oil cans or peanuts, I’m selling comic books. It’s an exciting art form, and if your approach to selling them doesn’t reflect that, then I think that’s a problem.

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