February 9, 2017

Ariell Johnson is creating a community for ‘underrepresented geeks’

Meet Ariell Johnson and the vibrant north Philly community she calls home

Ariell Johnson is the owner of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia.


In celebration of Black History Month, Allstate is spotlighting three African Americans who are making a positive impact on their communities, part of its annual “Worth Telling” campaign. The Renewal Project will share these local leaders’ stories. You can learn more at Allstate.com/WorthTelling, and on social media using the hashtag #WorthTelling. The Renewal Project is made possible by Allstate.

Ariell Johnson opened Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia with the goal of embracing diversity and inclusion in her community, and promoting more diverse representation in the world of art, specifically comic books. Johnson is the first black, female comic book store owner on the East Coast.

We spoke with the 33-year-old local trailblazer about how she’s making her north Philadelphia community thrive. Follow her at @AmalgamPhilly.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your community?

ARIELL JOHNSON: We are in the neighborhood of Kensington in north Philadelphia. We serve this community and other neighborhoods close by.

But we also serve a broader community I like to call underrepresented geeks—“blerds” (black nerds), black people, women, people of color, LGBTQ people—essentially, people who are geeky and enjoy comic books and gaming and who aren’t necessarily represented well in the media. We’ve got a lot of support from that segment too, and are are actively working to increase awareness of diverse communities and diverse character.

When did you start your community work?

JOHNSON: Amalgam opened in December 2015 with the goal of engaging the community that we were in locally, as well as supporting the larger diverse geek community by the books we carried and the type of things we were showcasing. It took me probably three years from a business plan to opening doors, to actually make Amalgam happen.

What inspired you to do this work?

JOHNSON: I got the idea when I was in college, because there was a small, local coffee shop very close to the comic book store I’d go to each week. I got in the habit of going to the comic book store on Fridays, and then going directly across the street and hanging out at a cafe and reading what I purchased, along with a hot chocolate or a piece of cake. I’d just hang out there—it was my safe space.

I didn’t want to leave this earth without having done something with impact—something I felt pride for and joy in.

The shop ended up closing a year or so after I discovered it, and it was the loss of that space that gave me the idea to start Amalgam. I thought it would be cool to have the comic book store be that space, instead of going to a comic book shop and then look for another place to be my safe space. That was in 2003—fast-forward 10 years and I was finally in a position to make it happen.

What ways are you are helping to make your community thrive?

JOHNSON: We are a community in transition. There’s a lot of interest in this area now—with a lot of development and new businesses coming in. The building Amalgam currently occupies was commercially vacant for 10-plus years. We are bringing life and activity to this corner of the neighborhood, and it’s been very well received.

We are also providing a safe space where anyone can come and truly be themselves. Amalgam is a safe haven for children who live in the neighborhood or go to school here. We have an influx of kids every day—some are regulars who come every day and hang out for a bit. They are nerdy kids, who maybe feel like they can’t be as open about their interests as they can when they are in the shop.

We also do a lot of events that are community focused and socially minded, giving people a place to come and discuss related ideas and exchange stories.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud that the business thus far has been well-received. It is one thing to have an idea—one that you think is good. But it is another thing when people are reaffirming your idea and reaffirming what your hopes and dreams are for a project. I feel like i get a lot of support—visits, support emails, people who love the store. They remind me that they are proud of me and what I have accomplished.

What leader or leaders inspired you?

JOHNSON: My family. My grandma and my mom were two very strong women who always taught me to do my best and keep trying, to always put my best foot forward, and never to half-heartedly do anything.

My mom lost her life at 57 to cancer. She had hopes and dreams, some of which she was able to achieve, some of which she wasn’t. She didn’t have a lot of time on this earth, and that’s another thing that has pressed me to try so hard. I didn’t want to leave this earth without having done something with impact—something I felt pride for and joy in. Losing her at a young age made me realize I may not have that much time either.

What do you love about your community? And what connects you to it.

JOHNSON: I live five minutes away from my store, so I am very much a part of this community and connected to it. I’ve lived in many different part of Philadelphia, but this neighborhood has been one of my favorites. It is an actual community, one where you know your neighbors, you know the kids in the neighborhood, and people speak to one another. The shop owners in our corridor patronize each other, and know each other. It’s an awesome thing. We don’t just exist in an isolated vacuum next to one another. Each one of us is a piece of a puzzle, as we build up this neighborhood.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community, that they may not know?

JOHNSON: This is a developing community, so it has a reputation for being unsafe, and people may be wary of coming out to a shop because of where it is. I want people to know that this is a real community.

It’s not that we don’t have problems; there are things we are working to change and working to better, but it definitely is not a neighborhood that should be avoided. People don’t give it a chance. I’d say give it a chance because there is a lot of good happening here. There’s a lot of history here, and I have never felt unsafe here.

Uzra Khan

Uzra Khan is a contributor to The Renewal Project.
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