Seven years ago, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse threw wide the doors welcoming all with a smile, a piping cup, and a four-color pamphlet of delight. Now, the door stays open to the travelers, the visitors, but they are few. And so, regrettably, owner Ariell Johnson has snapped her fingers, announcing that the community geek space will be no more; one more victim of Covid-19’s pandemic wake. In an exclusive interview with Philadelphia Weekly, Johnson gives the backstory behind her stunning announcement, sharing the timeline of events that led to this moment as well as her private thoughts about the store’s place in Philadelphia and nerd culture.
Seven years ago, a doorway to heroic adventure, supernatural fantasy, and universal experiences was unlocked on Frankford Avenue, of all places, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse presented a refreshing alternative to the comic book shops that dot the country, standing as the first (and only, still) comic book shop on the East Coast owned and operated by a Black woman – Ariell Johnson, Temple University graduate by way of Baltimore, Head Nerd in Charge, certified nerd (do not get her started on X-Men).
The good times were plentiful at Amalgam, which saw statesmen, costumed royalty, stars of stage and screen, and even Godz cross her threshold to take in its objets de geek (geek stuff) and share a chat, smile, and pic with its charming proprietor. Alas, the last two years of pandemic woes proved too daunting for the shop.
Today, Ariell Johnson announced that Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse will be closing (the last day is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, October 15). I sat with Johnson to hear her thoughts about this heartfelt decision.
So, Ariell, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse is…
The legendary Amalgam! (laughs)
The historic Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse is closing its doors. Let’s just get it out of the way. What happened?
(Laughs) I’m laughing at how you ask the question. (Laughs) You know it’s, thankfully, no great drama or anything like that. It’s just, you know, the cumulative effects of Covid’s impact on us. We were affected immediately because, as a non-essential business, we were ordered to close by the city. Before that order came down, we had started to go through the Covid norm, which is now the norm. We had a whole plan for wiping down surfaces and this and that as there was more concern about Covid. But then the very next day, the shutdown notice came. We were shut down for three months.
Closed completely. Again, following safety protocols and trying to keep everybody safe by staying home, I instructed all of my team to apply for unemployment – because we don’t know how long this is going to go on – with the hope, that when things resumed, I’d be able to bring everybody back.
Even during the course of Covid, I didn’t lay anybody off. There were some team transitions but those were by their choice. But I did my best to keep everybody on staff or, you know, whatever that meant for the time.
Let’s pull the curtain back a little bit. Financially speaking, where’s the store pre-Covid; 2019, going into 2020?
We were kind of moving into a new phase. I mean, as a small business, it’s always tight, you know what I mean? By 2019 we’re four years in, approaching our five-year mark which is a big deal in business to make it five years. We’re meeting our expenses every month and we’re grinding. We’re making it happen.
We had just finished – literally just finished – the construction in the rear areas of our space. We received a Knights Foundation Grant in 2017 to rehab those spaces and like most construction jobs, there’s a long process of architects and plan approvals and all that. But we completed the construction in that back room, which included a dedicated classroom space so that we could continue the work we were already doing. We were already hosting classes and workshops and screenings, but now we had a space set aside to do those things. It opens in January of 2020 and we just started booking room rentals and things like that; a new stream of revenue coming into the shop.
So we were definitely in a place where I was starting to think, strategy-wise, about the team differently; about how to effectively assign jobs and define new roles within the organization, so that we could make the move to that next level. We were definitely in a place of transition where we were about to start into this new phase and then no sooner do we start into that phase, we start into a whole other phase of Covid-19.
When does the store reopen?
We reopen in June 2020, operating with curbside service. We weren’t allowing customers in the shop; you would come up to the door, and we were encouraging folks to call ahead for books or order books online. So that when folks came to the door, we could basically just pass their items out to them. I was trying to have people back at work as safe as possible; minimizing contact that my staff was having with the outside world and vice versa.
So we reopened in June and even that was delayed because of the murder of George Floyd, and the uprisings in the city. It was just feeling unsafe and it was feeling, honestly, unsafe in my neighborhood. Like, I didn’t feel as confident or sure just walking around my neighborhood.
That’s the Kensington section of Philadelphia, right? That’s where the store is.
And that’s where I live. So, yes, when I say my neighborhood, I’m talking about both the store and where I live and everything just felt on edge. I didn’t want folks to be traveling in that environment as we were all kind of dealing with the horrors of all of that.
And then in June of 2021 for Juneteenth, actually, we mark the grand reopening (kind of) of Amalgam. We had a Juneteenth Street Festival. We partnered with The Black Child Book Fair for the event, aimed at literacy for children. The street was blocked off. We had DJs, who were all children and youth, 12 years old and younger. The Black Child Book Fair booked all of the vendors, who produced or sold books aimed at younger audiences. Then we had some writers from Mighty Writers, which is a program here in Philly that works with youth to develop both reading and writing skills. It was really cool; an awesome event.
It felt good to have people back in the space and just to have that energy again because the space was always about coming together and community. Operating under Covid-19 restrictions was so against our business model and what we wanted to be in the community. So it felt good to have all that energy back in the store, but it’s still Covid. So we’re opening without a coffee bar, without in-store seating for food consumption, and things like that, in an attempt to be safe. And all those things, we reintroduce slowly over time, I think we brought the coffee bar back in September of 2021, I guess. And then we reintroduce eating, I want to say, right before Christmas – maybe late November, I think – but still requiring masks to enter. You can only take your mask down in certain areas of the shop, but if you’re walking around, if you’re browsing, you still have to mask (up). Just trying to do things that keep people safe because people are still getting sick. My sister just had Covid a couple of weeks ago, and a team member just had Covid. Thankfully, it was in a period where they had been away from the shop so no one else was at risk but it’s still a challenge trying to still operate and be as safe as possible.
But yeah, it’s the compounded results of halted operations, limited operations and then also, folks are struggling. You know, everybody personally felt the effects of Covid, or at least most of us did financially. And so when it comes to shopping regularly and comics come out weekly, but if you don’t have that weekly traffic to drive sales and support it, it’s hard to stay afloat. In the wake of gas prices going up and grocery prices going up, people’s entertainment budgets are cut; that’s just the reality of it. As a comic book reader, I know when you come on hard times or you have an unexpected expense, it’s the first thing that gets cut and we’ve definitely felt that.
You know, our customers are faithful, to say the least, but people are having hard times; we’re losing subscribers and (there’s) just not as much foot traffic. Whether or not we make money, we need to make the expenses. I have to pay my team. I have to pay rent; I have to pay utilities, you know? I have to upkeep the shop. There are things to fix and all of that comes with a cost. And so, it’s just gotten to a point where we just can’t sustain. I’ve seen it coming and have been doing my best to stave it off, as long as possible, and hopefully avoid it, you know? Every program, every grant we were eligible for, I’ve applied for it; some we got, others we didn’t get. That’s one of the things that kept us going this long, actually doing that work and accessing those programs and using those resources. Taking advantage of the programs that are available has been a core reason why we’ve been able to kind of hang on this long.
But everything is coming to a head and I don’t want to wait until it’s impossible because I don’t want to get to a point where we completely run out of gas…
… And just have to shut down.
Because I’ve seen that happen, you know? A business that I’m a fan of, I just learned they’re closing and it was kind of abrupt. So, doing it this way, I’m giving our fans, our followers, our supporters time to come, and say goodbye. You know, we want to help people transition from their pull lists with us to wherever they have to move to keep their subscriptions going.
Also, we’re keeping the programming that we’ve already confirmed and we have some pretty cool things in the pipeline and I’m excited about all of them. One event, in particular, I want to hang in long enough to be able to host this event; that announcement is coming soon.* Because this event is like a trifecta, if you will, of Black women in comics doing their thing and making this huge impact on nerd culture and beyond.
So yeah, doing it this way, I can still, kind of, navigate us through all of those things so that we can finish strong. I am nothing but proud of what Amalgam has been. I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of my team because this has been hard, like small businesses hard.
I think I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of. I’m definitely coming out of this a stronger person. I’m coming out understanding the true power of collaboration and teamwork. As you know, we’ve done a lot in our short lifespan and I love and thank my team 100% for their support and being there, showing up to make sure people have a great experience when they come in the door. I thank my village, my personal village – my sister, my brother-in-law, my niece, and my friends who have also shown up and sacrificed their time and resources to help make Amalgam what it has been. This has definitely been a collective effort to push Amalgam into the stratosphere.
On our closing, we will have been open for about six and three-quarters years. So keeping it magical, if you will, at six and three-quarters…
It always comes back to magic with you (laughs).
(Laughs) Black girl magic is real, my friend. And I think that’s just proof of it.
I think about it from a TV standpoint. It’s like if we were a TV show and we got six, seven years, that’s a good one.
That is a very good run these days.
That’s a good run and after saying all that, I’ll say that I still 100% believe in Amalgam. I’ve had too many tear-filled conversations in that store with people, seeing how much it means to them that a space like this exists for me to think that it doesn’t need to still exist.
I guess I’m not saying that well, but it’s just been a little bit of a rough time, right? It’s been rough in a whole lot of ways as a country; we are still going through a lot of stress and strains right now. We’re literally in a place where people’s rights are being stripped away. I think a space like Amalgam needs to exist, so my hope is that, in the future, if another opportunity arises, I can move and bring it back, whatever ‘it’ looks like – because I understand Amalgam might look completely different than it looked in its first iteration. But the spirit behind it will be the same.
I’m stepping away, but optimistically if an opportunity shows itself that I think I can move on effectively and reinstate this community (the AmalgamNation), I most certainly will. So let me just (step) back a little bit, and recharge.
Meanwhile, I can still navigate us through all of those things so that we can finish strong. I am nothing but proud of what Amalgam has been. I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of my team. because this has been hard. I’m really proud of all we’ve accomplished so we will (go out) celebrating,
Well, I hope you know your impact and your worth to the culture because it’s immeasurable. And everyone is rooting for you and the next iteration, the next phase of the Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse universe.
Thank you, friend.
*Yes, I got the scoop on this special event, but no, I can’t tell you what it is. However, I can confirm that it is Black, bold, and beautiful. And, as is often the case at Amalgam, the fellas will dig it; the ladies will love it.