Bay Area/ San Francisco
Published on October 07, 2013
Meet James Sime of Isotope ComicsSaroyan Humphrey for Hayeswire
James Sime, owner of Isotope Comics (326 Fell), is that guy. You know, the one behind the counter with the trademark stand-on-end hair dressed in a stylish suit, who will happily bring you a stack of graphic novels and comic books and talk you through each one. It's understandable where this son of a high school chemistry teacher got the shop's moniker, not to mention the unbridled excitement with which he talks about radon. Running the comic book lounge with girlfriend Kirsten Baldock, James has created a one-of-a-kind space that's sought out by international comic buffs and loyal locals alike.

Hayeswire: How did you find this space? James Sime: I used to drive by this spot on my way to work—I was out in the Avenues—and this place was empty and I thought, “I want to be there.” And it was before the whole Hayes Valley explosion, but you could see it [coming]. Absinthe is, I think, one of the best restaurants in the city, and I love Blue Bottle and I just wanted to be in this neighborhood. This space was empty for a long time. It was a music school and before that, it was a H: We weren’t really sure about the history of the space. JS: The space has even more history. Probably the most exciting thing is that one of my neighbors told me that this is where Sylvester would throw his [Disco] parties back in the 70s. So cool. And Robyn Hitchcock lived next door. H: Obviously you’re not just a shop. You use the term “lounge.” There are so many things that happen here. How did that evolve? JS: What I always envisioned was a place that was really community-based that would have original art in the gallery, would have a place to hang out, and sit and discover and would do lots of things. I always wanted a place where you would walk in the door and you would feel like you were part of a community already, just by coming in. H: For someone who hasn’t been here, what kind of things can they expect to find? JS: We have a wide variety of comic books, graphic novels -- which is really our focus -- and mini-comics, which are handmade, small batch Xerox zines. There’s lots of rare stuff from all over the world. Not older, vintage books. I only deal in new comics. I’ve armed the store—mostly with me—but with people who are really well read, and huge nerds for varieties of different kinds of comics so I have a lot of customers who come in and they are like, “James, what do I read next?” And that’s kind of the environment I’ve always wanted to have for a store. The other thing is that part of the reason that I opened the Isotope is because I wanted to see a comic bookstore for women and I feel like in the comic’s industry they’ve been really ignored for a long time. H: It is a very open space for everyone. JS: The design of the store is lots of open space for humans. Instead of filling the store with more stuff to sell, my concept is kind of to waste the retail space and maximize the space for people so that we can do stuff like have an event and you can come in and have Kirsten’s amazing cocktails and hang out and get to meet the artists. H: How does the gallery work? JS: The gallery works very different from other galleries in town. Instead of us hanging art and taking 50% or 30% of the money, all we do is feature the people we love and the artists get all the money. H: Of course we have to ask about the toilet seats. JS: We do have a really bizarre museum. It’s called The Comic Rock Star’s Toilet Seat Museum. It’s [the work] of writers and artists of comics from all over the world, drawn on toilet seats. It started kind of as a fluke in 2001. I had an artist/writer in by the name of Brian Wood. He’s writing X-Men now and he does DMZ and Northlanders. I had him in for this in-store and we gave Brian just a little bit more beer than we probably should have and Brian vandalized up my bathroom, and the walls, not so great, but the lid was awesome. The next day I hung his lid in the gallery with the rest of my original art and then this other artist came in, Rick Remender, 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. H: How many are there now? JS: I have lost count. This is about half of my collection [here in the store]. So it’s probably not 200 but it’s up there, it’s like 100-something. There are two rules. One, they have to come into the shop in order to get the lid and two, we have to love their comics. H: Is it true there’s a character from Invincible based on you? JS: It is true. Robert Kirkman, who does the The Walking Dead comic, wrote me in. There’s a scene that I’m in in Walking Dead as well, I’m in a pile of dead bodies. But in Invincible, the character Isotope is a villain, he’s not a very nice guy. He’s a reoccurring character but very minor. But it’s such an honor to be in Robert’s books because his stuff is so good. H: Are you happy you chose to set up shop in Hayes Valley? JS: One of the things that made me know I had to move my shop into Hayes Valley [from the Sunset] eight years ago is that you can go into any of the stores, businesses and the owner is right there and I absolutely love that about the neighborhood. I think it’s a really rare and precious thing that we have—to get that raw passion and the fire behind their business, and the love that they’ve poured into it. I think that that’s an awesome thing. Yeah, Hayes Valley.