Comic Shop Focus: Needles and Pens, San Francisco, CA

Categories:  Features, Interviews

“I’m the needles half,” answers Breezy Culbertson, the shop’s pigtailed co-owner, seated behind the counter nestled in the back right-hand corner of her store. “The sewing needles half.” The pens half, she explains, is Andrew Scott, a former Maximum RocknRoll coordinator and editor of the long-running zine, sobstory.   Together the duo opened the quasi-eponymous Needles and Pens a few blocks from this spot, a half-dozen years ago.

“The old store was tiny. It was the size of a one-car garage,” explains Culbertson. “San Francisco is so expensive, it was the only place we could afford.” Needles and Pens opened up in 2002 on 14th and Guerrero, in storefront that had formerly been home to San Francisco’s Black and Blue tattoo parlor, a small but cozy location that shared the block with a handful of kindred commercial spirits. “It was off the beaten path, too, but it was fun, because there was a record shop and a print shop and a gallery and a bike shop,” says Culbertson. “We used to have events together and it was like a mini-block party. It was fun. But then they moved on.”

After three-and-a-half years, Needles and Pens did likewise, scouting out a space on nearby 16th st., a block east of Mission Dolores, San Francisco’s oldest building and the district’s namesake.  The new store ,which opened its doors in 2006, isn’t exactly huge (more like a three-car garage), but Culbertson and Scott utilize their space to the fullest. Needles and Pens is split asymmetrically—Culbertson’s half devoted to racks of homemade apparel and Scott’s largely monopolized by shelves of mini-comics and zines—and, perhaps in the interest of art, a clothesline strung with thrift store ties, an aesthetic carried over from the clothespinned minis displayed in the shop’s front window.

The rear wall of the store is something of a makeshift gallery with a rotating cast of exhibitors culled from both the streets of San Francisco and elsewhere. “People from all come from all over,” explains Culbertson, motioning to the display behind her. “This guy is from Montreal. His name is ‘Other.’ He also goes by Troy Lovegates. He’s kind of a hobo artist. He travels all over the world, but I think he’s mostly based in Canada. We’ve had Billy Childish, who’s English and artists from all over, but the majority are local.” The criteria for choosing artists, Culbertson continues, is fairly easy-going. “They’ll approach us or we’ll approach them. Or it’s like friends or friends of friends. It’s very loose.”

Curating the zines and minis that line the shelves is a similiarly straight-forward proposition.  “People bring stuff in and we check it out. We take pretty much everything, as long as it’s not homophobic or racist or anything like that,” says Culbertson.  “People bring it in and we keep it for about three months and after that they either pick it up or bring us more. It’s kind of open door. We play it by ear.”

It was the simple desire to display such works that served as the initial impetus for the shop’s creation. Scott, a zine writer from Chicago, drew inspiration from the windy city’s finest comic shop. “There’s a place there called Quimby’s,” explains Culbertson. “He grew up there, so that was his big inspiration. I make clothing, and at the time there wasn’t anywhere that you could sell your own homemade clothing that wasn’t super high-end designery crap.” After years of lamenting the absence of such a location, the duo finally bit the bullet in 2002. “Me and Andrew always talked about how we’d love to have a shop like this in San Francisco, and since no one was doing it, we were like ‘fuck it. We’ll do it.’ ”

Half-a-dozen years later, things have certainly changed. “When we opened the store, there wasn’t really anything like this,” says Culbertson. “Now there are a ton of boutique galleries that open up, everyday. At the time, we were the only ones crazy enough to think about doing it.” Needles and Pens may not be the only game in town anymore, but a fairly strong argument can be made that, in a city full of do-it-yourselfers, it’s still the best.

–Brian Heater

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