The Amazing Adventure of Transforming a Comic Book Shop into a University

January 17, 2018 //
Ariell Johnson, BBA ’05, at Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse. (Photo: Ryan Collerd)

When Ariell Johnson, BBA ’05, was a kid growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s she cut comics out of newspapers, glued them to construction paper, and tried to sell them.

Back then, there was no way of knowing she’d one day open a comic book shop, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, in Philadelphia. Or that Ira Glass would interview her there for an episode of “This American Life.” Or that MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates and Civil Rights Movement icon and Congressman John Lewis—both of whom have recently been involved in comics, with the Black Panther series and March, respectively—would visit and stroll Amalgam’s shelves. But even as a kid, Johnson was a gifted entrepreneur and her family knew she was destined for something amazing.

“I always marched to my own drum and I was always business-minded,” recalls Johnson. “My mom would joke that she’d never have to worry about me being broke because I’m a hustler. I had a very crafty grandma who taught me how to knit and crochet and embroider. And anything I learned how to do, I’d try to make money from it. I would even make things out of Play-Doh and sell them. I’ve always been entrepreneurial.”

When Johnson moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University, she initially wanted to study dance. But her sister, an actuary, convinced her to major in accounting at the Fox School. After graduating in 2005, she briefly worked in retail and as a bookkeeper for a nonprofit and a local community newspaper. She considered becoming a certified public accountant, but the thrill was gone.

“I enjoy accounting,” she explains, “but I couldn’t do it all day, everyday. There’s a part of me that loves sitting and staring at spreadsheets, but I need a creative aspect to my work.”

Johnson, while a student at the Fox School, had the idea of opening a comic book shop. She’d fallen in love with comics after watching the X-Men cartoon in her youth—especially the character Storm—and she dove headfirst into Philly’s comic book scene. She became a regular at Fat Jacks Comicrypt. After scoring new books, she’d read them over hot chocolate at the nearby coffee shop, Crimson Moon.

“I loved nerding out in public,” she says, “and being at a coffee shop thumbing through a comic was really cool. When Crimson Moon closed, I had the idea for Amalgam. I didn’t have a place to go, so I thought it would be great if the comic book store were a coffee shop and a community space, too. That was the rough idea, but I was still in school then and not thinking about it too seriously. It was my pipedream.”

It took a terrible tragedy to push Johnson’s plan forward. When her mother died, it caused her to re-evaluate her life goals. She decided she needed to do something daring, something that would make her happy, and so she grabbed her dream and ran with it.

Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse. (Photo: Ryan Collerd)

In December of 2015, Amalgam Comics & Coffeeshop opened its doors along the Frankford Arts Corridor in the Kensington neighborhood. The space is hip and fun, with exposed brick walls, high ceilings, industrial flourishes, colorful furniture, and thousands of comics. She knew it was wise to diversify, and so Amalgam includes a coffee shop where people can read and sip hot chocolate, just like Johnson did back in the day.

Amalgam is much more than just comics and a café. There are nightly events, including readings, workshops, signings, open mics, comedy shows, and book clubs. The program calendar at the store is already jam packed, and business is about to get even busier. Earlier this year, Amalgam was one of 33 projects chosen to win a prestigious Knight Foundation grant. The project? Creating Amalgam University.

“It’ll allow us to have dedicated, enhanced space for programming,” Johnson says about the grant. “Our hope is to create a multipurpose room and to provide affordable comic book education, including writing, penciling, coloring, and professional development, such as how to pitch comics and put together a portfolio. We’ll especially be targeting underrepresented groups, including people of color, women, and people from the LGTBQ community.”

It’s been an exceptionally busy first two years. Johnson has juggled running the shop, managing nine employees, expanding the business and programming, and fulfilling dozens of interview requests from the press. In addition to being interviewed by Glass, she has been featured in articles by NPR, The Philadelphia Inquirer, CNN, and The New York Times. One question everyone asks her is when she’s opening another store.

“I’m making sure this one’s sustainable before I think about opening a new one,” she laughs. “We’re still a very small business, so I’m watching everything that’s going out and coming in, and if I know the store’s going to be quiet, I’ll work a shift by myself. We’re expanding so fast, but when I first saw this building, I knew immediately I wanted to turn it into an educational space. I had all these ideas, but I never dreamed we’d be able to do them so quickly.”

“And now it’s all happening.”

Ariell Johnson. (Photo: Ryan Collerd)

What Ariell’s Reading

Godshaper, by Simon Spurrier and Jonas Goonface

“It takes place in a world where the rules that govern science and technology stop working, so there are no modern conveniences. Instead, everyone has their own personal god that fulfills what technology used to. The class of people capable of shaping gods are godless themselves, and live as vagabonds, so there are interesting parallels with current events, mainly discussions about immigrant workers.”

Frostbite, by Joshua Williamson and Jason Shawn Alexander

“It’s a post-apocalyptic world where scientists were trying to fix global warming but they messed up and froze the world. The new currency’s heat, and frostbite is this highly contagious disease where people turn to ice. To reduce chances of spreading it, they have to burn entire cities down. It’s interesting because there are still people denying climate change today, and who knows where we’ll be in 20 years.”

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