Representation matters. From the arts and sciences to TV and movies, Black women are showing up, showing out, and shattering glass ceilings. Add Arielle Johnson’s name to the long list of trailblazers. A long-time comic book fan, Johnson opened Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse in Philadelphia last year, fulfilling a ten-year dream to blend comics, coffee, and community.
Johnson talked with EBONY.com about the importance of the store not looking like somebody’s basement, being welcoming to people of color and women, and the importance of building inclusive community spaces.
EBONY.com: Coffee shops are popular, and comics as a franchise are arguably more popular than ever. But in an age where print books are struggling, was there any anxiety opening a bookstore?
Arielle Johnson: It’s a risk opening any kind of business. That initial anxiety was there, is there. From the book angle, I did my research and found that while digital is gaining in popularity, print sales have benefited from digital. A lot of people start with digital because they’re uncomfortable going into comic book stores so they look for alternatives. But there’s something about holding a comic book in your hand that I think is important that you lose with digital.
EBONY.com: Outside of being a Black woman owner, was there anything you did with the space to make it more welcoming to women, people of color, and LGBTQ customers?
Johnson: It’s clean and well lit. A lot of times, when you go into a comic book store, it feels like you’re walking into someone’s basement. As a woman, going into situations like that can be uncomfortable. [My store] is colorful, and even the posters we have up aren’t these hyper sexualized women just put up for the male gaze. They’re superheroes of all different kinds. It's not anything that would make anyone uncomfortable. We have the coffee and bakery aspect that makes it feel like you’re going to grandma’s house.
EBONY.com: Were you conscious of the titles you carried to have a more inclusive section?
Johnson: You can’t really do the comic store thing if you’re not stocking the big publishers. In addition to the mainstream, we talk to independent creators. Even in my own fan-girl perusal, if I come across a product I’m excited about like Raising Dion, we’ll carry it. There’s also a new comic that hasn’t come out yet called “Black,” about a universe where only Black people have super powers. It touches on the whole police brutality thing and the idea that black people are super human. This comic wonders, “What if that were true?” I keep my ear to the ground for stuff like that. It tells a different story from a different perspective.
EBONY.com: We’ve seen both Marvel and DC diversify their characters, has that helped drive people to the store?
Johnson: I think so. We get a lot of Black people in. We have non-traditional families that are multi-racial households. I have one family where the parents are LGBTQ with two adopted kids–the son is Korean, the daughter is Black. The son is reading the new Hulk because the main character is Korean, and the daughter is reading Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. They want to make sure their kids are seeing characters that look like them. Representation is important. Because that is our aim and focus, people know they can come to the store and find something.
EBONY.com: You received a lot of press in the beginning, were there a lot of people who came in and purchased their first book because of it?
Johnson: We had a lot of that, but we also had a lot of old heads who hadn’t bought comics in twenty years that came through to support the shop. We have one guy named Randy on staff that takes time to figure out what it is that customers like, he won’t just recommend the popular titles. It’s cool to introduce people to a new medium. A lot of people think comics are just for kids, but there is some real tight storytelling. If you like books and literature, it’s on that level. Its deep challenging stuff.
EBONY.com: What’s next for Amalgam?
Johnson: Everyday is a new day. We’re doing so much that it’s hard to say. We’re at a place where we’re pushing events in the space. We have first Friday events and community meet ups. We have a knitting group that comes in called “Crafters of the Universe.” I’m a member of the group so on Wednesdays you can see me taking part. We have game night on Thursday. We want to create that community space and also partner with creators to do signings, art workshops and editorial workshops. All free of charge to enrich the creative community in our neighborhood and all of Philadelphia.
Amalgam is located at 2578 Frankford Ave in Philly. Visit the store's Facebook page for details.