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Microcosm: A backbreaking labour of love

By Joe Biel

I have a lot of natural luck. As a result, my ventures have often been successful. I think this is important to emphasize that success has little to do with skill or persistence much of the time.

I share a name with a mid-level fine artist who used to live in the same city with me. I’ve probably benefitted from that more than anything else in my life because we are constantly mistaken to be the same person. Magazines feature him and the people who read those magazines think we are the same person. It’s this kind of happenstance that has propelled me to where I am today.

Eleven years ago I was slinging pizzas at a restaurant that my friend’s dad owned. It was a pretty great job. I had a bit of a drinking problem at the time and would drink behind the oven after the owner went home for the night. It was the only spot in the whole place where you weren’t on video camera. The other employees and I discovered this through cross referencing all of the camera angles after there was a fist fight between two of my friends during open hours.

Somehow, after working there two years the owner made me the boss. It was kind of flattering because I was one of the youngest employees and definitely not the most responsible. He chided me for being queer or vegetarian on a daily basis and always corrected me when I did something wrong. I think underneath all of that he saw a little bit of himself in me.

The other employees resented me, either because they had worked there longer, they were older, or just hated the newfound freedoms I had on the job. I did work pretty hard most of the time but I skimmed a good deal of meals, made pizzas for my friends, and got to pick who went on which deliveries. I didn’t like being the boss but I learned a few things in the process – mostly that it sucks to be the boss.

Eventually the owner became a private investigator and sold the store to a former employee. He didn’t know how to run the store very well and would always defer things to me. The new owner’s wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t sell the place so he sold it – to the Italian mob.

Over the previous year or two I had been accumulating boxes of zines and records for the purpose of starting what would become Microcosm Publishing, a mailorder distro of things that people couldn’t find anywhere else. Being that my job was completely falling apart I thought I might quit and try to focus on the mailorder full time.

My friends made fun of me. When would I grow up? I couldn’t run a punk mailorder instead of having a job. That was a ridiculous notion. To their credit, I really didn’t know what I was doing.

After I put in my two weeks notice, the mobsters came to have meetings with the owner and I. There would be four men who only spoke Italian and one person who translated between us, like we were negotiating a hostage situation. This was almost comical enough to keep me around…almost. They asked what it would take for me not to quit.

Around this time my house burned down. A dog knocked over a lamp when no one was home, the carpet caught on fire, and the pressure built until the windows blew out and much of the ground floor was destroyed. This was the final straw. I was moving far away from Cleveland, Ohio.

Alex Wrekk visited me while I was doing a stint living with my parents. She suggested I move to Portland, Oregon with her. I didn’t know anything about the place but it couldn’t be much worse than living with my parents in the suburbs.

I had been doing Microcosm full time for about a year before I moved but kept most of the money in the project. I didn’t start paying myself until I quit my job and needed the paycheck. When I moved to Portland, I didn’t know how well it would work doing Microcosm full time. I was paying myself $400 per month and working about 60-100 hours per week.

The cost of living was a bit higher but Portland’s immense resources and systems of mutual support more than made up for it.

Within two more years and with Alex’s additional vision and help, Microcosm was flourishing more than ever. It felt like our catalog was doubling every 6 months. I was paying my rent entirely by selling copies of my own zines at Reading Frenzy, the zine store in Portland.

It was like I was living the dream. I just had to work long hours, deal with big jerks, and subsist on next to nothing and I didn’t have to go and get a job!

Being successful at something has always been somewhat of a haunting curse for me. What they don’t tell you is that an entity like a business keeps growing, often times against your will and out of your control. It takes on a life force of its own and often doesn’t listen to your pleas.

I wanted to go on tours and trips but I couldn’t because I was so buried in my workload. We needed more people. In 2001 we hired our friend Jenna to do the work while Alex and I were out of town. We got really lucky in the sense that Jenna was sensitive to our vision but also had a total protestant work ethic, sometimes putting both of us to shame!

She made sense of my inane systems, got all of the work done, and got all of the orders out quickly and efficiently. In 2003 we hired Zach to work full time packing orders and dealing with all of the random questions that people have everyday. I just had to run the publishing operation and keep all of the titles in stock.

I never would have listened to you if you told me in 1996 that I would be publishing 9 books by the end of 2005. Hell I don’t even think I read 9 books in 1996!

It seemed a natural progression when we made the decision to start publishing books but it opened many new cans of worms with distributors, receiveables, and storage space.

Things kept growing and by the end of 2004 there were 7 of us on payroll and an endless supply of work to be done.

Around this time I realized this isn’t how I want to spend my day. I wanted to have time to make zines, make videos, and ride my bike around or hang out with my friends. I didn’t have friends anymore. I had co-workers, associates, and people who I kept requesting favors from. I didn’t want to live like that so I began cutting back my work week from 100 hours to 60 hours to 40 hours to 28 hours and finally in November 2005 to 3-4 seven hour shifts per week.

In order to cope with the continually mounting workload and resulting stress, we are in the process of shifting to collective decision making and eventually co-operative ownership. So far it has caused people to be more invested in steering the organization and their own involvement in the day to day processes and decision making.

These new choices have allowed me to go back to writing zines, making new friends, riding my bike around town, making videos, and retiring back to the life that I didn’t know how much I enjoyed.

For more info on Microcosm visit www.microcosmpublishing.com

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