Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse was every bit the functioning café, with trained baristas at the ready for the morning’s java starting whistle and pastry handoff, masquerading as an eclectic ‘round-the-way comic book shop, where rows of Batman and Spider-Man periodicals shared space (and equal billing) with independent darlings Bitter Root and Saga. Owner Ariell Johnson says, “I’m always going to advocate for the depth of storytelling in comic books and appreciate graphic art as a vehicle for that world of storytelling. I’m also going to advocate for black femme trans queer voices in that world because I think it enriches it to see the full spectrum.”
More to the point, it was a community place, with folks camped out in favorite seats, favorite drinks in hand as they read graphic novels, biographies, and even textbooks (Johnson – “I know a few doctors out there that did most of their studying at Amalgam.”), as civic groups and geek clubs held meetings under the protection of Lady Amalgam’s cloak. Johnson is reverent, speaking about meeting American Gods star Yetide Badaki when she was a special guest at the Women’s Podcast Festival, held in 2019 to a packed house. “She’s a goddess.”
The venerable Kensington landmark announced on social media today that it will close its doors on Saturday, October 15. Johnson says the famed geekery will go out in style with special events to be announced soon, promising “to do my best to spend a little time in the kitchen to provide a certain wanting population with chocolate chip cookies and banana chocolate chip bread, Wookie cookies, and we’ll bust out our famous Uncle Iroh Green Tea Treats.”
And while ‘the head geek in charge’ cherishes all of the associations she’s made at the shop, from the kids who grew into talented young collegians on Amalgam’s colorful couches to award-winning creatives just a text away for a chat – all of whom she proudly call friends, there have been a few occasions when the shop, that Johnson dreamed of since childhood, gave reality to more of her dreams.
“When we were able to host the late Congressman, John Lewis in July of 2016. That was when the Democratic National Convention was here in Philly and he came for a pre-release and signing of the third installment of his biographical graphic novel. So yes – John Lewis has a comic book. It’s called March, it’s in three parts and we were able to host him before the book was available anywhere else. He came and he spoke to us, bringing the house to tears; me certainly. To have him, this civil rights icon, here in my business talking about just his work and his legacy was a really awesome moment.”
“One of my favorite comic book writers, Greg Pak, visited the shop. He also donated to our initial crowdfunding campaign for the store and I was completely geeking out that we were even on his radar. He came and talked about his work in the comic book industry; the conversation was just so thoughtful, talking about his creative process and specifically, being true to the characters while handling the content delicately. And he’s a fan of Storm, my absolute favorite character (Pak wrote Storm Volume 1: Make it Rain, Storm Vol. 2: Bring the Thunder, Marvel). He signed issue #1 for me, writing “Make It Rain.” They say never meet your heroes. Well, I say Greg Pak is a hero worth meeting.”
“She has come to the shop because she’s also a comic book writer; she’s co-written two volumes of Concrete Park (Dark Horse Comics) and she’s also done some writing on the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer comic (Dark Horse). She was Maxine Shaw, attorney at law on Living Single and that was a big one for me personally. Erika Alexander is someone that I attribute to my self-esteem because growing up in the 90s where everybody wanted to be light-skinned with green eyes; that was a whole thing. So, I spent a lot of time thinking I was the unpretty one. But Erika Alexander, I just thought she was this beautiful phenomenal woman, undeniably beautiful in my mind. If you said different, you’re a hater. I don’t look like her, right but you know, but we share features and so, for the first time, I looked at features like mine and saw the magnificence of them. Plus – as Maxine, she was like a no-nonsense lawyer; made her own rules. And it always stuck out to me that she lived by herself; just truly confident in who she was. And having Erika Alexander actually walk through those doors and speak to us was incredible.”
“DMC came and blessed us with his nerd journey and how that influenced the writing of his rhymes. It was just very deep. I was born in ‘83 so Run-DMC wasn’t necessarily my music but my sister (Lisa) was a teenager In the 80s. It was a lot of Duran Duran, a lot of Prince, and a lot of Run DMC. She lives in Maryland but she came up to meet DMC, with her Run-DMC shirt on. DJ Heavenly was spinning classic Run-DMC hits and Lisa knew every word. So it was just cool to be the vehicle with which my sister got to meet one of her lifelong idols.”