In Philadelphia, a Comic Book Store Dedicated to Diversity

Ariell R. Johnson at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse.

In the historically working-class Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, just a few minutes northeast of landmarks like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, a unique literary destination has blossomed. Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, which has become a popular draw since its opening in December 2015, is the brainchild of Ariell R. Johnson, a Baltimore native and alumna of nearby Temple University. Ms. Johnson, one of the first African-American female owners of a comic book store on the East Coast, has infused a cultural dynamism into the city and a sense of inclusiveness within her store. She has been featured on the cover of Marvel’s “Invincible Iron Man #1,” and was recently awarded a $50,000 grant by the Knight Foundation for an expansion.

“It is important to have a space for diverse audiences,” Ms. Johnson said. “I look for comic book titles from everyone, but especially from nontraditional groups, including people of color, women and the L.G.B.T.Q. community. The stories from people who share those spaces are genuine.”

Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Ms. Johnson.

How did you get interested in comic books?

Years ago, I first saw the character Storm from X-Men. She was the first black woman superhero that I came across, and I wanted to learn more about her. After seeing Storm, I felt like I could be part of the story.

What influenced your decision to open a comic book store?

The idea for the store came about as a result of a lost community space. There was a dope coffee shop, the Crimson Moon, which closed in 2005. I would read my comic books there every week. After I started going there regularly, I thought about how it would be cool to not have to look for a space outside of the store to feel comfortable. I wanted to create a welcoming environment like Crimson Moon and feature film screenings, signings and workshops, among other things. People can come here and meet with friends or make new ones.

Kensington is adjacent to Fishtown, a working-class enclave that has grown substantially. How do you see Amalgam contributing to the vitality of Kensington?

Our current space was previously vacant for over 10 years, so there was a lot of work that had to be done to our building. There are a lot of businesses that are opening in the area, and I was attracted to arts community that was already here. We want anyone to come in and feel like they have a space to be themselves, from neighborhood kids to comic and sci-fi geeks. You can get to us easily from Center City if you hop on the Septa train and get off at the Huntingdon stop.

What is your overall vision for the store?

I’m committed to helping comic book creators perfect their craft, partnering with artists, editors and writers in helping them figure out what can make their art stand out. Many of these creators haven’t had the same opportunities as other artists. There will be a new multipurpose room, which will serve as a space for a creator college. You have to be knowledgeable if you’re pitching comics to people.

Where are some intriguing places that you’ve visited?

I spent some time in London, which I loved, and Ireland, which really interested me. It is quiet and idyllic, with lots of green fields and old castles. I felt like I was able to see the face of Ireland, which was really cool and different.


Follow John L. Dorman on Twitter: @jon425.

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