“Now that we’re starting to kind of shift the lens a little bit, it feels like oppression. And it’s not oppression; it’s just like everybody else is kind of getting their chance.”
Ariell Johnson has been an avid fan of comic books and geek culture since childhood, when she first saw the character Storm in an X-Men cartoon. She had found someone who looked like her in the overwhelmingly white and male comic book universe.
It was a game-changer. She could imagine herself part of the story, and because of that opportunity, she wrote herself into history.
Johnson opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse (2578 Frankford Ave, Philadelphia) in 2015 as the first black woman-owned comic book store on the East Coast. Among a long list of accolades, she was featured on the cover of Invincible Iron Man #1 in 2016.
A commitment to inclusion
From the beginning, Johnson focused on building a space that is inclusive and where people of all ethnicities, religions, and orientations would feel comfortable. The idea for the fusion comic book shop and coffeehouse came from her favorite coffee shop, Crimson Moon, on Sansom Street in Philadelphia. In college she would buy comics and walk across the street to Crimson Moon to read. When the shop closed, she struggled to find a space that was as welcoming. Now her shop has become a second home for local high school students, low-income residents, and new families moving into Kensington.
Johnson carries her commitment to inclusion beyond her customers. She seeks out diverse titles and authors to carry in the store. As she told CNN Money in 2016, “I want to be very proactive and conscious to make sure we are carrying diverse titles. The smaller stuff, the independent stuff, the more diverse stuff that you really have to look for, and I think it’s worth it.”
“Seeing people representative of you can be important in your development and your self-esteem,” Johnson said.
As the store expands, she is building in additional supportive programming for those independent artists. Along with carrying their books in the store, she is cultivating their professional development and helping them to hone their skills at pitching ideas to publishers.
Johnson has garnered national media attention for a sustainable business model and a commitment to diversity that in breaking down barriers in the comic book industry. Her credits include profiles in Vibe, The Root, Bitch Media and The New York Times.
She also has made local impact. Before Amalgam, the northern portion of the Frankford Avenue commercial corridor above York Street was fragmented by long stretches of residential development, underutilized commercial space and vacant land. Now this section of the corridor has become a mini-enclave for black-owned businesses. Amalgam has become a local anchor business for the corridor and a city-wide destination for geek culture aficionados.
Johnson’s success has not been without resistance. She told The Root in 2017, “Whenever there’s change, there’s going to be backlash, and I feel like for white, male, cisgendered, heterosexual comic book fans, they have been the norm forever. Now that we’re starting to kind of shift the lens a little bit, it feels like oppression. And it’s not oppression; it’s just like everybody else is kind of getting their chance.”
The criticism has pushed Johnson to “double down” on her space for elevating independent artists and diverse authors.
NKCDC’s Economic Development department worked with Johnson early on in the process of starting a business and we are proud to see her success. Originally meeting at a workshop, NKCDC helped Johnson develop a business plan and explore available property, and supported her applications to the City of Philadelphia’s InStore and SafeCam programs, as well as a Knight Foundation grant that is allowing her to expand the store to function better as a community gathering space.
NKCDC is honored by the partnership. Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse is a welcoming, neighborhood space that transcends an interest in comics, bringing folks from across the City of Philadelphia to East Kensington. Ariell is an example of promoting equity and inclusion, not just as a value, but as the foundation of her business. “As one of our go-to spots for meetings and coffee, NKCDC can honestly say that we owe much of our energy and creativity to the space created by Ariell,” said Interim Executive Director, Bea Rider.
Johnson won the Equitable Entrepreneur Award from the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations in 2020, and became an NKCDC board member the same year.