When Ariell Johnson founded Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse at the end of 2015, the entrepreneur was immediately catapulted into the national spotlight as the East Coast’s first black female comic book storeowner. Since then, Johnson has had to navigate the challenges of being a first-time business owner, and the shop has grown to be the go-to community space where people can bask in their passion for all things geek. The store’s monthly calendar boasts events like Anime Wednesdays, film screenings, book signings, movie and T.V. show roundtables, trivia and open mic nights, and regular appearances from special guests. Johnson tells us what it was like to build her business in Philly and why the shop has become synonymous with “safe space” and the principles of inclusivity. She also tells us what she’d do in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
I grew up in … Baltimore, Maryland. I split my time between there and Glen Burnie. I came up to Philly in 2001 for college.
Growing up I always dreamt of becoming … a dancer. In college I joined a few dance groups, and after college I even auditioned for Philadanco.
At Temple I studied … accounting.
My passion for comic books comes from … the action comics that came out in the 90’s. When I saw Storm I was completely smitten. I had a desire to know more about her.
I opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse to … create a community comic book store, a community geek space. I got the idea for the shop when a coffee shop across the street from my local comic book shop closed. In the beginning, my goal was to create a similar kind of coffee shop. She had a dope, warm environment in there that I wanted to recreate. As I’ve gotten older and become more aware, I’ve used this platform to promote inclusivity in comics and other forms of geek culture.
In a zombie apocalypse I would … like to think I’d be a mix between Rick and Michonne from The Walking Dead. I definitely would be a fighter. I don’t think I would give up. That’s my personality.
My weapon of choice would be … a sword or a hatchet. Or an axe or machete. I prefer the sharp objects.
For those looking to break into comic books, start with …well, it depends on the person and what they like to read. There are people who aren’t into the super hero and cape thing. For those people I suggest something like Y: The Last Man and Watchman. If you’re into superheroes try Black Panther, the new Invincible Iron Man, and the new Ms. Marvel. For younger readers, try Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. For older readers, try Rat Queens and Lumberjanes.
Since opening Amalgam Comics in December 2015 I’ve learned … to be flexible. Before we opened, I had a plan of what I thought the store would look, but it currently looks different from what I had in mind. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing; it’s just different. I also thought I’d be able to open a comic book store and read comics in between customers and be very chill. But with the success of the store and the media attention, it’s all playing out differently. Like right now I’m doing this interview as opposed to sitting and reading a comic. I’m definitely adapting to successfully promote the store.
My recommendation for new business owners is … do your research. Get as much information as you can, especially by talking to people who have something similar to your idea. There’s nothing really new under the sun. There are other comic book coffee shop owners, mostly out west, and I talked to two of them in depth. And closer to home I talked to coffee shop owners and bookstore owners. Though I knew I would have a unique experience with my own shop, I wanted to collect individual pieces from everyone I spoke with to determine what would make my store whole.
A personal goal for 2017 is … to make time for myself. I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of personal time for the store so I’d like to get to a place where I have personal time. I’m an introvert so I enjoy spending time doing solitary things separate from the store like ax throwing or dance.
The best part of the variant cover of “Invincible Iron Man #1” featuring me is … that it actually looks like me in my truest form, and from the details, you can tell we’re not just in a coffee shop but that we’re actually in this coffee shop. The Captain America table in the image is really in here. And our windows are exactly how she depicted them.
We choose which comics to feature in the store based on … what we get from Diamond, our main supplier. We order based on subscriptions and we also order according to buzz. We keep our ear to the ground and build relationships with independents and creators to know when projects are completed.
Building a business in Philly … wasn’t easy. Having to deal with government agencies isn’t fun. They don’t make it easy. There’s a lot of confusion and referrals. They’d tell me “you need to go here,” and then when I’d get there they’d say, “You don’t need to talk to me.” There’s a lot of red tape and rigmarole. It’s not always clear what the first step is, and it was sometimes hard to get the information I needed to move forward. As a first-time business owner I need someone to take two more seconds to explain things to me. If no one’s willing to do that, it takes me way longer to get things done. Maybe it’s easier as a big business. There are programs out there that did help but the city can do more to make the process easier so that people can open small and local businesses here and not just huge corporations.
What I enjoy most about having a business in Philly is … that each neighborhood has its own vibe. I took the time to look at the culture of each neighborhood to determine how I could engage the community I’d set up my business in.
Most people don’t know that Riri Williams … is a 15-year-old genius and an MIT student. And she’s black. She was introduced to the comic book world in May 2016.
My favorite nook at the coffeehouse is … the front seating area because it’s colorful. There’s a red couch and two blue couches. The setup has a Wonder Woman type of feel. It’s very warm and comfy with lots of light coming in.
For lunch I typically … try to eat a healthy meal, but sometimes I end up eating junk food because of my schedule. I eat when I can and if I’ve eaten at all, it’s a good day.
I tend to wear bright colors in my hair because … it’s how I claim my independence. I was an accounting major in school, but I’m not really a corporate person. I like jeans, and midriffs, and fishnets and chains and color. Before becoming a business owner I’d go to work everyday in khakis and loafers, which wasn’t really my style. I told myself that when I sign the lease on the store I would dye my hair. First it was pink and purple then green and blue. now my hair is part of the store’s brand. I try to keep it up because when people come into the store looking for me, they’re looking for my hair. And why would you want brown hair when you can have purple?
We set up shop on Frankford Ave near Kensington … after considering a number of different locations like West Philly and Point Breeze. I felt like the Point Breeze location would be more difficult to get to. And if I opened up my shop in West Philly it would’ve been too close to Locust Moon, which was still open at the time. A friend of mine suggested Frankford because of businesses like Little Baby’s and Pizza Brain, and then I found out that it was an arts corridor. I liked the idea of having this form of pop culture art there. With art galleries you can’t touch anything but with a comic book store the books are the art that’s meant to be held and touched.
Something still missing from the comic book world is … more variety when it comes to who is writing, drawing, and starring in the creations. We definitely have some more progress to make there, but with art you also never really know what you’re missing until somebody does it, until somebody creates those new, innovative, interesting stories.
My personal comic book collection is … about 13 or 14 short boxes of books, not to mention my small bookshelf of trades.
The term “geek” has … lost its stigma. There are stereotypes of what a geek looks like or is like — they’re not attractive or they’re socially awkward. But there are lots of different types of geeks, and we’re all geeks in some kind of way. Whether you’re into sports or action and fighting like I am, or martial arts, manga, anime and gaming like my niece is, geek just means you are giving part of your life over to this thing. If you put your time and money into it, you’re “geeking out.” It’s just part of who you are and people should no longer have to hide their interests or be called weird for them. It’s about appreciating the individual quirks we all have.
An inclusive environment is one where … everyone sees themselves represented. You can tell people of color that they are welcome but if you walk in and there are no people of color on the shelves looking back at them then are we really welcome? An inclusive business should be accurately representative of the people. Underrepresented groups should work at the business, they should be patronizing the business, and they should be reflected in the types of events you put on. I prefer to use the word inclusivity over diversity because diversity is a formula that isn’t really helpful. For example, if you’re in Cali and you say your business is diverse because you have one Asian person, that doesn’t make sense because there are a lot of Asian people in California.
The 2018 Marvel “Black Panther” film will … be a movie of black people. Have you seen the cast? Black people will be royalty and even the bad guys won’t be street level thugs. The bad guys will be masterminds so it will be great to see us in places of power where we are in charge and the center is on us in a Marvel superhero movie. I couldn’t control myself while watching Captain America: Civil War, seeing T’Challa and Dora Milaje. Chadwick Boseman did such a great job.
And I think the producers took some ideas from Ta’nehisi Coates, who’s said the higher up in society you are, the darker you are. We will see darker people in the film, which will change the narrative. This is important for representation especially for black women since directors tend to cast women with lighter skin and Eurocentric features. Hopefully it’ll make people question their prejudices.
I recently finished watching … Dear White People on Netflix. It was well done on so many levels. I’m also four episodes in on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And I’m waiting on the next season of Game of Thrones like everybody else.
Young black people should … not allow others to tell them who they are. They should take the time to understand themselves, and once they do, they should be unyielding in who they are. Don’t let people talk you out of your interests. You can do whatever it is you want to do. It’s okay if you don’t fit the mold or if you’re outside of the box. As a culture we are starting to embrace this idea, but kids in the inner city still don’t get to see different kinds of black people. So it’s easy to fall into the stereotypes that exist because that’s how the system likes to see us. They are comfortable seeing us as the thug or welfare queen because then we aren’t a real threat. To see doctors and scientists and entrepreneurs — that speaks to our collective power. It’s important to make sure that those coming from poor neighborhoods can see different kinds of black people so they understand that there’s no shame in being good at math, for example.
In ten years I see myself … opening up another couple of stores? I don’t know. I’m open but don’t have a vision of where I’ll be. But the biggest thing is that I hope I own a home by then.
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