Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse is a comic book store and coffee shop hybrid located in the Kensington section of North Philadelphia. The idea for Amalgam was born in 2003 when the owner, Ariell Johnson, was still an accounting student at Temple University. 13 years in the making, Amalgam opened its doors on December 14, 2015. Since its opening Amalgam has garnered national media attention because of its commitment to representation and inclusion. Amalgam is the only black-woman owned shop of its kind, and the first black-woman owned comic book store on the East Coast. In 2017, they received a grant from the Knight Foundation for Johnson's programming proposal, "Up, Up and Away". For hours, location information and more, check out their site.
TCJ: How long have you been selling comics?
Ariell Johnson: Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse has been open for 2 1/2 years.
What's changed the most for your business in the last five years?
Amalgam has had a really interesting start. Two weeks after opening our doors we went viral in the truest sense of the word. With that came a whirlwind of interviews, special appearances and speaking engagements for me. As a brand new business I felt it was important to get as much media attention as possible, so for the first 6 months or so of our existence much of my attention and energy went into promoting the business and building our brand. The biggest change thus far has been me taking step back from the promotional piece and really spending time with the store, my staff, and my customers.
How do you decide what titles you are going to carry in the shop?
We're a comic shop, so of course we sell the major publishers and titles, but it is our mission to be an inclusive space so that means we work diligently to carry titles that feature and/or are created by people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community. For that I keep my ear to the ground. I watch for what people are talking about on social media, new Kickstarter campaigns, and I listen to customer suggestions.
Do you keep up with the comics news--and what does the term "comics news" mean to you?
Yes, I try to stay current with what's going on in geek culture. To me it's not just "comic news" it's more geek culture news. Comics, movies and television have all started to blend as more and more big and small screen projects are getting their inspiration from comics, graphic novels and manga.
What's your weekly routine with your store like? Has it gotten easier or harder since you started?
My routine changes week to week, depending on what's going on. But my time is split between doing administrative tasks, running errands, spending time behind the coffee bar, baking, assisting customers and managing my staff. The level of difficulty isn't a straight line, it's more of a wave, up and down. Just when I figure out once aspect of the business and things feel easier I may run into another challenge and things feel harder until I figure that out. It's an ongoing process.
What's happening at Amalgam University this week?
Amalgam University is still in the works. We are currently working through our construction phase.
What do you wish more publishers knew about comics retail?
I don't have an answer for this one. The majority of publishers that I've talked to one-on-one seem to have a good understanding of the retail side of the comic book industry.
What do you wish more customers knew about comics retail?
It's a hard business. Because it's comics I think people assume that it's all fun, games and fandom. While that's definitely a part of it, there is a lot of work to make sure a store runs effectively and efficiently. One of the biggest things that most people don't know is that unlike traditional books, comic books are primarily distributed by one company and any books ordered are not returnable. Distributors of traditional books usually take returns, which makes it much easier to manage your stock because you can order heavy on a book you think will do well, but you are not committed to keep those books if you don't sell them. That's not the case with comics, so managing orders is a huge part of the business. That's why it's so important for comic book readers to pick up books that they order from their local comic shop. When you abandon books that you asked your LCS to order you are sticking them with the bill.
What gets you most annoyed about comics right now?
The relaunching! In this industry #1 issues sell big, so the big two publishers (Marvel & DC) often relaunch ongoing titles. This practice is most hated in comic circles because it makes it really hard for the faithful reader/collector to keep track of what's going on. Also, collectors are robbed of their milestone issues when books are constantly restarted. Action Comics just celebrated its 1000th issue, and for Superman fans that was such a huge deal, but for me, an X-men fan, and fans of other books that are constantly being relaunched, it's frustrating because we'll never get our issue #1000.
What has you most excited about comics right now?
Long running super-hero comics aside, there is some really great original content being created. Books like Godshaper (Boom Studios), Snot Girl (Image), Sleepless(Image), Abbott (Boom Studios) and Infidel (Image) are some of my recent faves. All of these books feature POC, women, POC women, Queer POC and Queer POC women by the way, and I am loving all this intersectionality!