You don't want to spill coffee on your comic books (especially if you read digitally), but enjoying coffee with your comic books is a good thing - and readers in Philadelphia are doing that at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse.
The hybrid shop was opened two years ago this month by first-time business owner Ariell R. Johnson, aiming for an “inclusive geek space” and becoming the first black-owned comic store on the East Coast. In addition to hand-selling comics and cups of coffee out of her Frankford Avenue store, Johnson has brought in interest through unique variant cover projects and cross-promotion with Allstate as one of their “Stories Worth Telling” back in February.
With her rounding out her second year in business, Newsarama spoke with Johnson about her shop and her own secret origin into comic books.
Newsarama: Ariell, how'd you get introduced to comic books as a fan?
Ariell R. Johnson: Storm was my gateway drug as it were. I was introduced to her through the Fox X-Men cartoon that aired in the 90's. I was about 11 or so, and she was the first black woman superhero that I had ever seen! She changed the way that I thought about superheroes. Before I met her, I always felt like I was watching other people's adventures, but once I was introduced to Storm I began to picture myself taking part in the action. She made me feel like I could be a superhero too! My love for Storm is what brought me into comics. I wanted to learn more about her, and I knew she originated in comics, so if I wanted to know more about her that meant I needed to start reading comics, and from then on I was hooked.
Nrama: And what led you to wanting to get into the business of comic book retailing?
Johnson: In college, my local comic book shop was Fat Jacks's in Center City. My routine on Fridays was to go to Fat Jack's, buy my books, then I would go across the street to this independently-owned coffee shop called Crimson Moon and read everything that I bought. My routine was interrupted when Crimson Moon closed its doors. I was at a loss when that space closed because it was such an intentionally warm and welcoming environment. The loss of that community space was the spark that would lead to Amalgam. I wanted to create a comic book store that could also serve as a community space, not just a place to buy books, but a place to read them, hang out with friends, or make new friends over geeky conversation.
Nrama: Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse has been open for a while now - how would you describe the current state of things for you in Philadelphia?
Johnson: The shop has gotten an overwhelmingly positive response from our local community. Our supporters appreciate our commitment to representation and community.
Nrama: What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned since the doors to Amalgam have opened?
Johnson: Be flexible! That is definitely the most important lesson that I have learned since opening the business. I definitely had an idea in my head of what opening Amalgam would look like, and nothing about this experience has been what I thought. That's not a bad thing necessarily, but it has meant that I have had to adapt and change. If I held on too tightly to what I thought things would look like I would just end up feeling frustrated, but by keeping an open mind and being willing to change when necessary it actually makes things easier and helps me to be more responsive to new opportunities.
Also, that I can't do everything by myself. I am a very hands-on person, and I like to do everything. [Laughs]
But that's impossible. I have often wished for Jamie Madrox's powers since opening this business, but that's impossible too. [Laughs]
I am learning to delegate and really trust my team to take the lead on different projects and tasks. It has made my life so much easier, and freed me up to focus on other things. I have a great team that goes above and beyond every day. I'm thankful for each and every one of them.
Nrama: This is about comics, but Amalgam is also a coffeehouse. What are the most popular items you have over on that side of things?
Johnson: One of our most popular drinks is our Butter Beer Latte, it can be made with or without espresso. Harry Potter fans are always happy to see it on the menu. In addition to serving coffee we also bake in-house. I would say the thing we are most known for is our banana bread. We currently have 4 different variations: banana chocolate chip, banana walnut, vegan banana bread, and vegan banana walnut.
Nrama: A while back you commissioned a retailer exclusive variant for Invincible Iron Man with yourself being drawn in, interacting with the characters. How did that work out for you?
Johnson: It was really cool! The concept came from my Comic Book Jedi, Randy Green. He thought it would be cool to not only show me interacting with Riri on the cover, but for us to actually be hanging out in the shop. The response from the public was overwhelming! So many people wanted the book, we had a hard time keeping up with orders when they started pouring in. I definitely didn't anticipate that there would be such a huge demand for the book. It was a humbling experience.
Nrama: What are your big goals moving forward in comics?
Johnson: We are hoping to make some additional improvements to the space which would give us more room to do community outreach, artistic workshops, writing workshops, and other programming.