(Photo courtesy of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse)
This article appears in a series on Black and Latinx entrepreneurship in Philadelphia and is underwritten by PIDC and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. It was independently reported and not reviewed by these partners before publication.
Growing up in Glen Burnie and Baltimore, Maryland, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse owner Ariell Johnson became adept at learning new skills and finding ways to monetize them.
Whether it was learning how to knit or needlepoint from her grandmother or cutting out comic strips from the Sunday paper to sell for a penny, Johnson always had an entrepreneurial spirit.
“When people made plastic lace keychains when I was in middle school in the ‘90s, I was cranking them out and would go to classes with a coat hanger, a cash box, and sell the ones I made,” she told Technical.ly. “It was always something I did. I feel like that was always in my bones. It was just a matter of figuring out what that looks like as an adult.”
Johnson later attended Temple University where she majored in accounting and studied at the Fox School of Business.
For the entrepreneur and longtime comic book fan, creating an executable plan beyond what she called her “dreaming” phase started with researching the comic shop and coffeehouse markets. Free workshops taught her details like the difference between a patent and a trademark, and she also took classes on commercial lease negotiation with Entrepreneur Works, the Old City nonprofit offering entrepreneurs loans, training and networking.
Johnson opened Amalgam in December 2015 on East Kensington’s Frankford Avenue with an aim to create an inclusive hub as well as the go-to spot to buy the latest issue of your favorite comic. Amalgam is thought to be the first Black woman-owned comic book store on the East Coast.
Before the pandemic, Amalgam’s business model centered on it being a community space. Patrons could pick up their favorite comic books and enjoy reading them with a fresh coffee cup of from the shop. Not seeing regular visitors or in-person events like book signings and workshops because of COVID-19 restrictions has been sobering.
“The key factor to our business doing well is people being able to come here, whether it’s a book signing or workshop. Now all of a sudden,” she said, “we can’t do any of those things.”
To help Amalgam serve customers during the pandemic, Johnson has leaned more on ecommerce. Over the past nine months, she said her business has done more web sales than it had over the entire year and a half before. The website previously had a limited product selection; it’s now a key source of revenue as Amalgam prepares for the most profitable holiday shopping season that it can, given the circumstances.
Johnson applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and an Economic Injury Disaster SBA loan early on in the pandemic, to which she credits her strong working relationship with the Women’s Opportunities Resource Center (WORC). She has had a symbiotic relationship with them dating back to a meeting five years ago before her store opened, she said: As Amalgam has found success in the comic book industry and community support, it has reflected well on WORC.
"I had to pitch to loan committees and it’s not lost on me that the majority of the time the room I’m pitching to is 95% white and 75% male."
“Their mission is to serve business owners like you,” she said. “I connected with folks that may have known a bit more about funding opportunities. I think it’s imperative for new businesses to build those relationships because that may help down the road.”
WORC Collections Manager John Milano had effusive praise for Johnson, whom he credits with helping revitalize the neighborhood in which Amalgam is located.
“We’ve given her loans and technical assistance on starting a new business,” he said. “She’s given a lot of assistance to helping Frankford Avenue’s rejuvenation.”
Having help from organizations like WORC to properly organize financial records is essential in order to apply for and receive loans, Johnson said. When she first applied for the competitive city Department of Commerce’s In-Store Forgivable Loan Program, she was rejected. If businesses that receive the loan can sustain for five or more years, it converts to a grant. The department did not think Amalgam had a viable business model.
Johnson met with them in-person to argue her case.
“I went back and asked what issues they had, and they didn’t understand the industry of comic books,” she said. “They didn’t understand that comics come out weekly and people subscribe in advance. After that, I could explain my numbers and they made sense. That happened because I had a strong business plan for my industry and research and could argue my point even when they said no.”
In addition to finding ways for her business to sustain during the pandemic, the nationally publicized 2020 killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police brought about depression, stress and anxiety that Johnson is still fighting today.
“Every day you were hearing about another atrocity against a Black body,” she said. “I was having a really hard time staying focused. I’m Black first. There are some things that should maybe be further along, but there’s a human element. If I’m not running, Amalgam is not running.”
One of Johnson’s ongoing priorities is figuring out how she and her team can best serve customers while conserving resources. With a loss in foot traffic due to COVID-19, she is optimistic that a change in the presidency can hopefully bring the country out of the pandemic sooner than was expected under Donald Trump.
As a Black woman running a business in a largely homogenous industry, Johnson frequently advocates for wider representation in the business community — and within different organizations that offer resources for entrepreneurs. Better representation can allow stakeholders to better relate to people who look like them and have similar lived experiences, thus potentially encouraging more resources to be passed on to more entrepreneurs.
“I always think it comes down to who is in the room,” she said. “If your organization’s mission is to help women, people of color, Black or queer people, those people need to be present in the organization. I had to pitch to loan committees and it’s not lost on me that the majority of the time the room I’m pitching to is 95% white and 75% male.”
Next up: Look for Amalgam to be featured on Facebook’s “#BuyBlack Friday” show finale.
- Entrepreneur Works
- Women’s Opportunities Resource Center
- Department of Commerce’s In-Store Forgivable Loan Program
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
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