A Changing Neighborhood, from Clothes to Comics

Sharon Lim

Ocean Avenue hasn't been a place San Franciscans typically think about going to get streetwear and a stylish hair cut. But that may be changing as younger shoppers attract stores like Medium Rare and prompt others, like Comic Outpost, to modernize.

Arjay Das and Randy Aquino made a daring move to open up Medium Rare two years ago and are gradually making the street wear store a well-known name in the urban brand business.

Aquino’s San Francisco State marketing and management degree and Das’ previous ownership of B2S1 in Daly City’s Westlake shopping district provide the business acumen for success.
Das' longtime dream was to open up a shop in San Francisco. He used his entire savings and got loans to start Medium Rare.

“I specifically chose Ocean Avenue because it’s next to two big colleges, City and SF State. It’s accessible to students because of buses and MUNI,” Das said. “It’s way easier to find parking rather than on Haight. Over there, you've got to drive a car and look for parking. That might take awhile.”

Comic Outpost owner Russell Burns also said his store caters to a lot of college students. The few shops in the area make his location stand out.

Comic Outpost opened 17 years ago and has expanded from just a comic store to the local comic bar for the geek culture, Burns said.
It's happy being the only comic shop on Ocean Avenue. Other stores such as Comic Experience on Divisidero Street or Isotope on Fell Street are not a threat, Burns said.

“Comic Experience is more like a bookstore and Isotope is more for the indie crowd. Every comic shop is unique and creates its own identity," he said. "Plus, customers are very loyal to their shops.
"I just can’t imagine anyone else moving around here because they have to be extremely different,” Burns said. “So, for the most part, our location’s great.”

Lower Rents
Along with better parking, Ocean Avenue offers lower rents. According to Das, a shop on Haight may cost up to $5,000 a month while Medium Rare's location is $1,200 a month.
"It is smarter to choose a location such as Ocean Avenue because we do not have substantial financial backing," he said. “And if you don’t do so well in a month, it’s easy to fund [it] from your own pocket."

A two-chaired barbershop is in the back of Medium Rare. Das wanted to bring something unique and different to Ocean Avenue, especially with the current economy.

“There’s only one place I know that’s a store and a barbershop, and it’s in New York. I noticed all my homies always get fades or cuts once a week ... This is just the ideal place to go out on a Friday to get a shirt and a cut at the same time,” Das said. “And the profit is noticeable.”

The barbers ages range from 21 to 25. They have practiced cutting since high school in their garages. Only one out of three barbers has formal schooling.

Friendly Neighbors
New shops like Medium Rare don't scare Gary Cimino, a longtime barber in the area. Cimino has owned Gary & Leeza’s Barbershop since 1987 and has regulars who have been coming for 20 years.

Cimino is so confident with his regulars that he refers walk-ins or impatient customers to other salons. “I even used to do cuts for SF State’s Phi Kappa Tau boys. I was the barber,” Cimino said. “I cut hair for most of the school’s football team, too.”

Like Medium Rare, Comic Outpost has become a destination store.

“On ‘new book day’ we have crowds of people. This is the hangout spot. People talk about everything from comic books to whom we’re going to vote for in the next election to mortgages," Burns said.

"You could buy this stuff online, but people come because they know they’ll find like-minded people with the same interest,” he added. “No one's going to judge you like they do at home or work.”

Outpost attracts the Ingleside community by throwing Halloween parties, Wii bowling tournaments, independent film screenings, and annual free comic book days.

Medium Rare also wants to be a versatile store. They are steadily introducing the urban culture to the Ingleside by hosting business meetings for urban culture magazines, setting up model photo shoots, and shooting music videos for artists like Ras Kass.

Not much effort has to be made in luring a certain target because all the "street wear heads" and skaters come to Medium Rare on their own, seeing that this is the only shop of their kind on this street.

“We are something new. It would be really hard to change this area like Haight," said Das. "If it does, that’s cool. But, for now, we like being the only ones here."