Year-old Kensington comic book store and coffeehouse getting attention
Since Ariell Johnson opened her comic book store and coffee shop in Kensington in December 2015, she has taken the world by Storm.
In fact, her childhood fascination with Storm, the X-Men superheroine, led her to comic book and sci-fi fantasy geek fandom in the first place, she said.
She has been profiled on ABC News, CNN Money, and MSNBC, not to mention various nerd and geek websites, as the first African American woman to open a comic book store on the East Coast.
And in November, she was depicted on a variant cover of the Invincible Iron Man No. 1 comic book, along with Riri Williams, the 15-year-old African American superhero character known as Ironheart.
Storm “was the first black woman superhero I ever saw,” Johnson, 33, said at her shop, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, 2578 Frankford Ave.
“In addition, she was a powerhouse; she was one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men universe. She controlled the very elements. She wasn’t a sidekick. She was the main event, which was exciting.”
Johnson said all the attention has been good for business.
“I think we’re doing well. We’ve had a very strong first year, and an untraditional first year, with all the hubbub around the shop,” she said.
Diversity in comic books has been met with some backlash from mostly male fans who assert on YouTube videos that characters should not be suddenly changed to black or gay. Some have called it pandering to attract more women and people of color to comics.
Johnson has not hesitated to speak out about the importance of the comic book world becoming more inclusive.
That means having characters who represent everyone - black, white, Latino, Asian, and people of all religions and sexual identities.
She makes sure to carry books written by and for women and people of color.
Johnson said people like them as heroes in fantasy and science fiction can empower young readers.
“When young girls come in here and know that a woman owns the shop, a black woman owns the shop, and they can see titles where girls are the heroes and not just the love interests or the sidekick … when they see women and girls taking the lead in things, that’s really powerful,” she said.
Since word of Johnson’s success got around, celebrity comic book writers have visited Amalgam.
The store was packed a couple of months ago when Ta-Nehisi Coates came for a book signing to accompany the release of a new comic in his Marvel series Black Panther.
She has also welcomed Greg Pak, author of X-Treme X-Men and other titles, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who coauthored a graphic novel, March.
Amalgam is spacious and colorful, with a red couch at the front window and blue and yellow armchairs nearby. In fact, it’s like entering a live comic strip tableau.
Small round tables have comic book logos: symbols for ThunderCat, Captain America, and Spider-Man.
Johnson said she became enamored of superheroes while watching television cartoon shows as a child.
“I’ve always liked shows about super powers,” she said. “I grew up watching ThunderCats, He-Man and She-Ra. But none of those shows had any black characters featured.”
When she was about 11, she saw herself in the character Storm in X-Men cartoons.
“In addition to being black and a woman, she had dark skin. The only thing that didn’t look like me was that she had white hair and blue eyes.”
A Baltimore native, Johnson came to Philadelphia to attend Temple University and earned an accounting degree there in 2005.
It took a decade of working for other people, first in retail and later as an accountant, before she decided to fulfill her dream.
Inside Amalgam the other day, Sam Woods Thomas, the commercial corridor coordinator for New Kensington Community Development Corp., said the coffee shop was the only one in the neighborhood.
Still, he said, things are looking up, with a new apartment development in the next block that people are comparing to the Piazza in Northern Liberties.
But he said it’s small businesses like Johnson’s that are key.
“They bring life back to the block,” Thomas said.