Comic book stores, like their retail cousins record shops, are often drawn to tight quarters. Even the "Android's Dungeon," the comic shop out of The Simpson's fictional landscape, occupies only a thin slice of imagined real estate, squished between a barbershop and a diner. But Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, the brainchild of Philly resident Ariell Johnson, is spread out, light-filled and roomy –– the sprawling comic displays, coffee bar and plush couches are the first visual cues that the Kensington comic emporium is not like its peers.
This week, the Knight Foundation selected Johnson out of more than 4,500 applicants to receive a grant of $50,000. The eighteen-month old comic shop aims to open the world of comics to an "amalgamation" of audiences –– this grant will help the store reach even more.
Johnson's proposal, "Up, Up and Away: Building a Programming Space at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse" will expand the shop into "Amalgam University," where hopeful writers and illustrators can take classes on drawing, writing, pitching and publishing.
Johnson has already made waves in the comic world. When she opened the store in December of 2015, Johnson became the first African-American woman to own a comic book store on the East Coast. In addition to the largely white-male-authored mainstream staples, Amalgam stocks many works written by people of color, women and members of the LGBT community, as well as those by independent creators.
Because Amalgam sells self-published works, Johnson gets a lot of amateur submissions –– and many of them don't meet the standards for retail.
"Often, the ideas are there, but they haven't studied the craft," Johnson explained. "It's a comic book, but it's also literature. Just like there are good writers of literature, there good writers and illustrators of comic books."
Johnson wanted to find a way to equip aspiring comic creators, particularly those from disenfranchised communities without the means to go to art school, with the tools to compete with mainstream comic books.
Amalgam has already started on this mission –– they run children's workshops, and partnered with RUSH, Danny Simmons' arts philanthropy foundation –– an effort which Johnson said is made possible by their spacious venue.
"We do a lot of these programs in our space," Johnson said. "But the building is actually much bigger. There are rooms behind the bathroom, which we haven't renovated. This grant will allow us to open up those rooms to the public and create a permanent programming space. We'll use it to its full potential."
When the construction is finished sometime next year, Amalgam will be almost twice its present size, and Johnson hopes its impact on the Kensington and comic communities will follow suit. But the store has already influenced the area.
"I actually found out about the grant from a customer named Annie," Johnson said. "She and her husband had recently moved here. They came in, introduced themselves and encouraged me to apply. Apparently, Amalgam was one of the reasons they moved to the neighborhood."
Some of Amalgam's patrons are like Annie –– devoted fans who factor comics into major life decisions –– but others have never read a comic before in their lives.
"We get a lot of newcomers asking for advice." Johnson explained. "We listen to what people like, and we direct them into their lane. But once they get comfortable, they usually branch out."
Amalgam, it seems, is doing the same.