Just over a year ago, Ariell Johnson made local news as the first black woman to open and manage a comic shop on the East Coast. In an industry that too often has pushed back against diversity, Philadelphia’s Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, Inc. has made diversity the foundation that it is built on.
“We think that comics are for everyone and anyone that loves comics–women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community,” said Johnson in an interview with The Inquirer. “We will actively look to stock titles that showcase people in these groups, right long with Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Thor.”
The groundbreaking entrepreneur has proven her promise true throughout the store’s inaugural year, creating a safe haven that celebrates geek culture in its many forms all while enjoying a nice cup of coffee. And in just one year, Johnson went from local phenomenon to national news icon when she appeared on the cover of Marvel’s Invincible Ironman #1 along side our newest hero, RiRi Williams.
That’s a lot for Johnson to fit under her belt in just one year, but she is unstoppable. Fortunately, Johnson did stop long enough to chat with me, reflecting on the store’s beginnings and looking towards its future.
The store name seems to stem from the amalgamation of comics and coffee, based on your earlier experiences of buying comics and enjoying coffee at stores across from each other. Are there any other details that went into the name choice?
The name is actually the result of a conversation between myself and one of my best friends, Corin Wilson. We were actively working to name the store, and we had a few ideas, but no home runs. During the conversation my friend started listing all the things we wanted the store to be: a comic book store, coffee shop, community space, gamer friendly, sci-fi nerd-friendly, etc., culminating with the statement, “It will be an Amalgamation!” As soon as she said it, I knew that was it! “Amalgam.” It was perfect. It encompassed everything and gave us room to grow and develop beyond our initial ideas as well.
Your menu offers a selection of beverages as well as baked goods and sandwiches. Based on your many positive reviews, you seem to be attracting a few customers that aren’t just interested in the geeky side of things. Was this part of your initial plan when designing the cafe part of the store? Have such visitors discovered their geeky side and since been converted to full-fledged members of the Amalganation?
In designing the layout of the store I was definitely thinking about both our geeky and non-geeky guests. I didn’t want to alienate anyone because they may not necessarily be comic fans. It’s a coffee shop too! We have regular customers that solely use us as a coffee shop; they come in, set up their laptop, and work for a few hours. We have made a believer out of some of our non-geeky guests. It’s always exciting when that happens. A few people have confessed that it started because they just wanted to support our shop, but in the process, they got really into the books that they were reading and are now weekly visitors to the shop to pick up the latest reads.
You celebrated your first anniversary in December. What have you learned in your first year?
Yes, we did! I’m grateful for each and every person who has supported us in this first year! I’ve learned a lot, and believe me, I’m still learning. Owning your own business is a lot of work. I joke that I have never worked this hard and been so broke in my life. LOL. My work day never stops. Whether it’s doing paperwork after hours, running errands, or working behind the counter, every day is a fully packed day for me. I knew that this was going to be hard work, I had no doubt about that, but sometimes it is a lot more to keep the store running than I could have ever imagined. But I’m learning to delegate tasks to my team, I’m a very hands-on person, so I will admit that it is hard for me to let go of things, but I know that if I want the business to continue to grow and be a healthy company I have to loosen the reigns a bit.
Amalgam offers many of the typical comic shop events–from book clubs to gaming nights–but you go above and beyond by offering both educational and community assistance events. Tell us more about Pop-Up Shops and the Free Health Insurance Enrollment Assistance events.
Even in such a short time, Amalgam has gotten a reputation as a community space. I’m super excited about that! As a result, we have a lot of organizations that want to partner with us to provide different opportunities and services to residents in our community. The Health Insurance Enrollment Assistance events are a good example of that. We were approached to host the event, and we were more than happy to say yes. This event gives members of the community a chance to come in and have their health insurance questions answered by a professional enrollment assistant, and they will even enroll you in a plan.
We’ve hosted a few pop-up shops in the past, and we have two coming up over the next few months. I enjoy hosting pop-ups because it has a two-fold effect. First, the pop-up shops benefit from Amalgam’s customer base and makes more people aware of their brand and products, and second, for those merchants that already have a bit of a following, it introduces Amalgam to a new group of potential patrons. So both Amalgam and the merchants are simultaneously promoting and benefiting from each other. I think small business plays a huge part in a healthy community, so I’m happy to help foster that in any way that I can, especially by supporting other local and small companies.
What are your plans for 2017?
This year is my year to get myself and the store organized. The first year was a whirlwind, and I am finally starting to feel like I am catching up. I want to to take this year to focus on store operations, as we work to expand our offerings to better serve our community both locally and abroad. We’re still figuring out exactly what that would look like, but I’m hopeful about the opportunities that await us in 2017.
Let’s gaze even further into the future: Where do you see your store five years from now?
Honestly, I’m not sure. This store is already so much more than even I was planning for. We’ve hit so many milestones just in our first year! My focus right now is finding what balance looks like for us to ensure that we are still around 5, 10, 20 years down the road. Small business is tough business, and I want to make sure we can go the distance. That being said, I believe our possibilities are endless; we could have multiple locations, we could get into publishing, or creating other types of content. Nothing is off the table at this point, but my current focus is more present-centered.
You can drop by and visit Amalgam Comics & Coffee House in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, or visit their Facebook page for more information.