For Leef Smith, San Francisco native and owner of Mission: Comics and Art, comic books can deliver an experience unlike any other art form.
“With novels, it’s all mostly in your head,” he said through his Wonder Woman mask. “And then with film or TV or that type of thing, it’s a very passive experience.”
Comic books sit in the middle of these two poles. “Your imagination has to fill in a lot of the story,” he explained, “but you also get lots of cues about how to interpret things, about the emotional tone.”
It is an underappreciated medium, he added.
Smith has been a lifelong reader of comic books, but they were not always his career. While working at various tech startups throughout the late ’90s and 2000s, he was sad to see local comic book stores, like the iconic, stuffed-to-the-gills San Francisco Comic Book Store at 3339 23rd St., blinking out of existence. The idea of starting his own began to ferment. In 2008, the recession finally gave him the impetus to make his store a reality.
“I’ve tried to create a much more open and inviting place, where people who might not otherwise come into a comic book store will feel welcome and comfortable,” he said. Smith attributes his success to opening his doors to the whole neighborhood, not just existing comic book fans.
Still, he said, they have had to adapt like any small business. The art gallery that once nestled at the back of his store is now gone, and Covid-19 spelled an end to their regular events and social gatherings. The store’s sofa has been packed away for the indefinite future.
“A lot of us are still just sort of treading water,” he said. The store managed to stay afloat with a disaster loan and a raft of small grants, but even now, he said, there is a long way to go to get the business back to where it was before covid. Even back then, business was not easy.
Smith will be taking part in Lit Crawl on October 23, an exciting milestone given the store’s pause on events over the past year or so. Depending on how the pandemic progresses over the next few months, it may be the first of many.
In the meantime, Smith is keen to invite anyone and everyone into the store to get a taste of the art form he loves.
“Let me know if you want any recommendations,” Smith grinned as I disappeared into the aisles to pick out my first graphic novel.