Filmmaker E.J. McLeavey-Fisher has made a lovely short documentary about Joe Leisner, former owner of the shop Comic Book Heaven in Sunnyside, Queens.
I asked E.J. a few questions about the film--which you can watch in its entirety right here:
Comic Book Heaven from E.J. McLeavey-Fisher on Vimeo
Q: Something I like most about the film is its depiction of what might be called "a real New York character." Can such a breed still exist in the city? And can they still run a successful business?
A: That breed can definitely still exist, but I don't think they can necessarily run a shop like Comic Book Heaven without making some serious tweaks over time. To me, Joe's "New York character" comes from that defiant, stubborn outlook that often gets equated with the overall NYC attitude. That's the charm, of course, but when it applies to a business model, it's not so sustainable.
The conflict now is that people get a kick out of Joe and appreciate his efforts in a film like this, but when it comes down to it, they might still prefer a new coffee shop in that storefront.
Q: It seems like many of the newcomers to New York have trouble dealing with shopkeepers who have...let's call it an "edge." In Joe's shop, he had a sign that said if you don't put the comics back in alphabetical order, "we will break your fingers." I suspect that if a sign like this existed today, in the gentrified parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn, people would be screaming bloody murder about it on Yelp. What are your thoughts on this?
A: Joe definitely has that edge, but it's hard not to notice the intentional humor within it. I would hope that if a character like Joe and those signs existed in a store in another neighborhood, people would take the time to soak him in and find the humor in it. But some people aren't looking to necessarily engage in a conversation or get to know the person running the store they're shopping at, which is understandable too.
New York City is rather unrelenting in how much interaction it's throwing at you at all times and it takes a while to get used to that. So if you just want to get your comic book and get out, Comic Book Heaven may not have been the place for you. It's a personal preference thing, I guess. If I read negative reviews on Yelp about Comic Book Heaven that still included any of those anecdotes, I'd probably want to go even more.
Q: What was lost when Joe's shop closed?
A: I’m not into comic books myself and had never been to the store before I started this project, so I don’t have that personal connection that some do. But after observing the business over the months that I was filming, I saw how comforting a store like this was for some of the customers in the same way that others might go to a local bar.
And I don’t envision these people now making the trek into Manhattan to hang out at Forbidden Planet. So that specific community, however small, isn't there for these customers in the way that it once was.
Q: What inspired you to do this film, especially since you're not a comic book fan?
A: Sunnyside has a small-town vibe to it compared to some other neighborhoods in the city, so it's more noticeable when a business opens or closes. I'd been following a local neighborhood news site for a while that covered these stories pretty frequently and wanted to try and catch one of these businesses to document the process of closing--not after they had closed suddenly.
I saw the article about Comic Book Heaven closing and stopped by, figuring it might make for a quick 3-minute piece as the shop closed a month later (which was the original plan). But once I met Joe, I realized there was more to it. Plus, he ended up staying open for 5 months longer than he was supposed to, so I was able to shoot much more than I initially anticipated.
Q: What's Joe up to these days? Does he miss the shop?
A: Joe does not miss the shop but he misses the companionship and activity for sure. He does his best to stay in touch with former customers and people from the neighborhood, but without a specific schedule and living out in Canarsie I think he's a bit bored. His motivation and energy is incredible though; he wants to become an actor now that he's spent some time in front of the camera. But as any aspiring actor in NYC knows, it's not a quick or easy career to launch. He keeps telling me that I need to find him a gig because he's "running out of time."
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