Maybe you’ve heard of Ariell Johnson and Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse in Philadephia, PA. Since opening last year, Amalgam has gotten plenty of press coverage as a comic book store/coffee shop owned and operated by a colorfully loc’d Black woman (and fellow Storm fan, OF COURSE!). She’s doing work many of us have dreamed of — owning our own spaces and showcasing Black art. We caught up with her in the midst of her busy schedule to talk fandom, snacks, and how to create a clean, well-lit place for comics and events.
Black Nerd Problems: Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: Who’s your favorite comic book character? Is it still Storm, as you note in your IgnitePhilly talk? What about her do you love?
Ariell: Yes! Of course! I’m loyal, lol. Storm is my first love when it comes to comics. I love everything about her, she is such a robust character. She of course piqued my interest when I first encountered her because she was the first Black woman superhero that I’d ever come across…the first superhero that looked like me. She made me feel that I was no longer on the sidelines watching the action unfold, I was a part of it. She’s strong, powerful, smart, beautiful and a leader. What’s not to love?
BNP: In your IgnitePhilly talk, you speak so passionately about the importance of representation in the media we love. When/how did you first come to realize that comics mattered?
Ariell: Honestly, I didn’t think about it too much when I was younger. I think Black people in particular are used to NOT being seen in media. It’s been that way for so long, you don’t really think about it. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I realized just how important it was. Maybe it was a slow, natural progression, I don’t know. I just started getting tired of not seeing myself. I’m surrounded by Black women who put in real work and make things happen. Black women are my super heroes everyday, so why do I need to look so hard to find them in comics, TV, and movies? It doesn’t make sense to me, and it shouldn’t make sense to anyone in my opinion. Everyone has a right to be seen, the right to have their story told, the right to have the spotlight on them from time to time.
BNP: What current comic do you wish was around when you were a kid?
Ariell: It would have been cool to have a book like Lumberjanes when I was younger. A group of girls having supernatural adventures at scout camp? Yes please!
BNP: Switching gears to the comics field over all, what do you think accounts for the growth of comics among nerds of color in the last few years? We’ve always been here, but our numbers are growing. Why do you think that is?
Ariell: You’re right, we’ve always been here. But I think now Black people are really starting to embrace themselves as a whole. We are realizing that there isn’t one way to be black, black is what we are, and we are finally beginning to get comfortable with that. And with that comfort we feel free to really explore who we are as people, and the things we enjoy, and the things that give us joy, and we’re not secretive about it anymore.
BNP: How have you handled any resistance you’ve encountered from entering the male-dominated world of the comics business?
Ariell: Honestly, I wouldn’t say I’ve encountered direct resistance. Most people are excited about the store, and impressed that I was able to make it a reality. There have been internet trolls here and there, that bring their special brand of negativity, but we aren’t giving any space to that.
BNP: About the store, what does making a safe space for diverse fans mean to you? How have you tried to achieve that in your store?
Ariell: It just means doing your best to make everyone comfortable, and it takes a lot of forms. Our space is open, clean, well-lit, and we have a ramp at our entryway for wheelchairs. We have non-gendered, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms as well. The staff is also an important piece. I have a diverse team in terms of ethnicity, gender, faith, sexual orientation, and geeky interests. The staff is also welcoming to all that come through our doors. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been reading comics for decades or you’re just checking out the store because you saw the latest Marvel or DC movie, you will be treated with respect, and we will always do our best to help you find what you’re looking for.
BNP: Do you think there’s anything unique about Philadelphia that makes it a good place to start your shop?
Ariell: Philly has a pretty strong geek culture. In addition to that, there are a lot of artists and other creative types that make up the city’s residents. Philly is an interesting place to be, and there is a love of creativity that this city and its residents really embrace. Plus we are located on an Arts Corridor, which is a really cool opportunity for us to represent comic book art in a space that would usually only showcase “traditional” forms of art.
BNP: You’ve gotten a lot of media attention in the last bit. Is it surprising? How are you managing your sudden fame?
Ariell: I of course was hoping that the shop would be well received, but all of this media attention has come as a real surprise…but a very welcome one. LOL. I am doing my best to keep my focus inward on the store. We are working hard to keep up with the new demand that the store is generating. I really want people to have a good experience, especially now that we are getting busier. I don’t want our quality to slip because we are busy, just the opposite, I want us to get better and better.
In between running the store I do my best to make time for the questions and requests we get from customers and supporters. It takes us a little longer to respond to emails now, because we are getting so many, but we are working hard to stay on top of everything, so people have the best experience possible.
BNP: What’s your next big thing? Expanding to sell other products?
Ariell: We are steadily expanding our product lines. It may take a few months before our inventory is as robust as I would like, but that is normal. It takes time to accumulate a store full of merchandise.
Right now, our fastest growing business segment is events. So many people have expressed an interest in hosting events in our space. We always planned to host events, but that part of the business has ramped up much faster than we anticipated. It’s exciting! We have a few events under our belt, and we are excited for the future events that we have scheduled as well.
BNP: Last question: I’m a coffee shop fiend and a comic book fiend, so I have to know: what kind of snacks do you serve?
Ariell: Oh wow, you’re our perfect customer! Hahaha!
We serve Philly Fair Trade coffee. They are a local, ethically sourced roaster, located in Northeast Philadelphia. We have the standard coffee shop fare: hot and iced coffee, espresso-based drinks, and tea. We also have bagels and other pastries. Some of the pastries (i.e., bagels & croissants) are from outside bakeries, but we also do a good amount of baking in-house. Our most popular in-house baked goods include cookies, cupcakes, scones, muffins, loaf breads, and cakes. We will be introducing some additional items, such as homemade pies, come the spring/summer.
In closing, I want to share the the IgnitePhilly talk Ariell did. It is 7 minutes of the most genuine, heart-felt, and well-considered statements on why Representation Matters that I’ve heard in a minute.
If you’re in the Philadelphia area, you can visit Ariell and her staff at
Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, 2578 Frankford Avenue Philadelphia, PA
You can also check out the shop’s Facebook page for updates on events.