Back in 2003, Temple student Ariell Johnson would always be sure to make two stops on Fridays. The first was Fat Jack’s Comicrypt at 20th and Sansom in Philadelphia to purchase the latest issues of her favorite comic books. The coffeehouse across the street was where she would go to read them. Crimson Moon was a cool Center-city chill spot with beautiful décor, the best new lounge music, and owned by a Black woman named Koko, who probably was around the same age then that Johnson is now. In its heyday, Crimson Moon coffeehouse was the site of fashion shows, photo shoots, and various pre-release music events – including being the setting of a music video for neo-soul power couple Kindred the Family Soul. Even as the Philly landmark was closing its doors in 2005, locals knew it was still needed more than ever for people growing tired of the now ubiquitous corporate cookie-cutter vibe of maximalist coffee shops hell-bent on making customers forget how to order a basic small-sized latte.
“It was the loss of her space that gave me the idea,” Johnson recalled during an exclusive interview with rolling out at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, her brainchild located at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Huntingdon Street. “For me, it wasn’t as simple as finding another coffeehouse, because it was this space that she created and I just missed it.”
Philadelphia is a city that seems to find a way, despite whatever challenges, to embrace its soul and build on its strengths. Tapping into the spirit of the city, in 2013 Johnson started seriously working to get Amalgam up and running. The building in which her idea would come to life had been vacant for over ten years, and many people have told Johnson they’re glad something is finally there to help revitalize the East Kensington neighborhood.
“A lot of times when revitalization happens, the new things that come in are very clearly not for the people in the neighborhood; so, the people in the neighborhood don’t come,” Johnson said. “But I think we’ve done a good job of making everybody feel welcome.”
The young population in Philadelphia is reportedly growing faster than any other major city, and many neighborhoods like Kensington are becoming more culturally diverse. Amalgam is one place in the neighborhood where kids can come in after school. There are even a couple of them who occasionally work there for store credit. Johnson has been approached about utilizing the space to teach young people how to code, which she recognizes as an important skill to have even for herself, as so much of the business takes her into web and computer based territory. Coding camps are among the many concepts Johnson is considering as she plans for future growth in a community eager to grow with her.
“We know our kids by name … this is like a hangout,” said the huge fan of Storm, from X-Men fame, who rocks silver-colored hair in her honor. “They come, they talk to us, they tell us about their day, which I think is cool … and then we have older people who have been here [in the neighborhood for a long time] and they like the space, too”
Frequently hosting community events – from birthday parties and art workshops to socially relevant conversations like the recent Luke Cage TalkBack town hall with The Black Tribbles podcast – shows the commitment of Amalgam to its neighbors. Perhaps most telling is that a young couple who recently relocated told Johnson that Amalgam was a big factor in their decision to move into the neighborhood.
Johnson is also working on expanding Amalgam into an unused part of the building with a gaming lounge and multipurpose event room, looking to complete renovations in time to feature it in the second year of operations.
This month, Amalgam is partnering with the Micheaux Mission podcast for a Jan. 20 screening of Krush Groove.
Follow Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse on social media @amalgamphilly and Ariell Johnson @wind__rider83.
See photos below.