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The scoop on Microcosm Publishing from founder Joe Biel

Posted by on March 6th, 2007 at 12:35 am

[A popular shirt
available through Microcosm.]

Recently on a local cycling email list, news surfaced that Microcosm Publishing and founder Joe Biel, were leaving Portland.

Microcosm is the company behind most of the bike stickers, zines, t-shirts and general bike propaganda that is a common sight on backpacks and messenger bags throughout the city.

But beyond the stuff they sell, their founder Joe Biel is an artist himself and an active member of the community.

Joe is the man behind, “Martinis in the Bike Lane,” a short documentary film that tells the inside story of Portland’s unique bike lane characters (watch it hi-res via Quicktime or quick and dirty on YouTube).

To set the record straight about his company, I asked Joe to write a few words about why he’s leaving and what we can expect in the future. Here’s his response:

I moved to Portland in 1999 expecting to live here for a year or so. Five years later I was hooked and not going anywhere. The best cycling anywhere I’d seen, the best resources, and a very attractive climate. Too attractive in fact – and many people from all over the country continue to flock here.

Now in 2007 it’s virtually impossible to get a piece of commercial property that is reasonably priced in our neighborhood. To purchase property, a down payment of $100,000 is standard and most properties get purchased; sight unseen within a few weeks.

Microcosm Publishing has been closely intertwined with the cycling community since day one here. It was a simple extension of my own vast longtime interest in cycling and creating things that I would find of interest. I came here with no knowledge of how vast and compelling that network was and how much it would propel me into friendships and community.

I am moving my permanent residence to Bloomington, IN on March 15 but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be in Portland frequently as well. I spent almost half of the last year in Bloomington so one could expect the same of me traveling to and from Portland!

[Microcosm Publishing founder Joe Biel]
Photo: Microcosm

I’m polishing off a zine about Critical Mass as an international movement. I started work on it about four years ago and hope to make 2007 the year that it hits the public. I’m revising the old “We’re not Blocking Traffic” zine from over ten years ago as well as talking about my own experiences (interested contributors should get in touch).

Microcosm is going to now be divided between Portland and Bloomington. You’ll still see us at bikey events around PDX and still see our titles at stores in town. We won’t have our own public store or office for awhile but all of our titles will be available at In Other Words books at 8 NE Killingsworth St.

Thanks for the update Joe. Good luck and keep in touch.

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24 Comments
  • mykle March 6, 2007 at 10:23 am

    This is exactly why we need to stabilize the cost of property in this town! Real estate speculation is driving out the creative class!

    Ten years ago, we could have taxed real-estate profits to fund land trusts and low-income housing; we could have enacted rent control; we could have raised property taxes on rental properties to fund education.

    At this point, all we can hope for is a market crash.

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  • N.I.K. March 6, 2007 at 10:44 am

    Bloomington? Odd choice. Considering his claims of having been there a lot over the past year, I’d guess there’s probably other factors figuring heavily into this move.

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  • Cecil March 6, 2007 at 10:57 am

    “Bloomington? Odd choice.”

    Yeah. I can’t imagine why anyone interested in cycling would move to Bloomington. It’s not like it’s the home of a world-famous race or anything like that.

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  • N.I.K. March 6, 2007 at 11:19 am

    Yeah. I can’t imagine why anyone interested in cycling would move to Bloomington. It’s not like it’s the home of a world-famous race or anything like that.

    Really? No kidding. Thanks for enlightening me, your eminence. May I kiss your filthy filthy ring to show my gross inferiority to He Whose Ass the Light of the World Shines Out Of?

    Yeah, I should’ve said “…factors other than property costs…”. That doesn’t mean you get to be a dick about it.

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  • Cecil March 6, 2007 at 11:24 am

    Sorry, NIK, I didn’t realize you would take it so hard. I was reacting to what I saw as an all-too-common habit of Portlanders to dismiss any city that isn’t, well, Portland. That said, your reaction was a tad bit extreme. Not to mention offensive. Not to mention pretty far off base, gender-wise. And alll my rings are clean, including my chain rings.

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  • N.I.K. March 6, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Keep in mind that I don’t know you, Cecil, much as you don’t know me -and I don’t mean that in the Springer slap-fest sort of way. Heavy-handed sarcasm is generally laid at strangers for the sake of provoking an extreme reaction, and that’s precisely what happened.

    That said, apology accepted, and I’m sorry for responding like…like…a partisan troll hitting up the other side’s blog’s comments section. 🙂

    As far as Bloomington being an odd choice, I meant it, and not in that “everywhere but Portland sucks” sort of way. I guess if one’s got to move to anywhere in Indiana, it’s one of the better spots to go to, given the Little 500 and the seeming progressive nature of the city compared to much of the rest of the state. All I was really suggesting is that Joe’s probably got some personal interests in Bloomington (friends? family? who knows?) and that these were probably also big factors in his deciding to move there.

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  • organic brian March 6, 2007 at 11:52 am

    Would you two like to exchange email addresses and carry on your bickering that way? We’re talkin’ ’bout Joe & Microcosm, here.

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  • Brad March 6, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    But…but…but Vera said that redeveloping Portland would attract creative types and middle income families to Portland. I’m confused now. I thought liberal policy, condos, and trams were supposed to make us less like L.A. – not attract L.A. developers and land barons?

    Good luck to Joe in Bloomington. It is a cool little town.

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  • trike March 6, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    oh i dunno its flat and every street is on a grid and it has farms that grow corn a soybeans; LOTS of corn and soy beans.

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  • revphil March 6, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    isnt microcosm a collective?

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  • Michaelk March 6, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Bloomington might be OK, but the rest of Indiana is… less than ideal. IMHO.

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  • Cecil March 6, 2007 at 9:19 pm

    Bloomington, cool.
    Terre Haute, not so much.
    French Lick, well at least it’s a funny name.

    Portland, cool.
    Klamath Falls, not so much.
    Drain, well at least it’s a funny name.

    It’s all really just a matter of perspective, innit?. The main thing is that Microcosm will continue on, and will still, apparently, be part of the Portland scene AND the Bloomington scene.

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  • trike March 7, 2007 at 7:22 am

    I put in part of my child hood in the windy city.
    you can live there and maybe this guy gets bike crazy flatlanders to ride with us.

    who knows it could be fun. sharing microcosm….sorta.

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  • JimK March 7, 2007 at 10:50 am

    I graduated from high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Bloomington is a great town! Not flat at all – lots of hills around. The glacial moraine divide flat northern Indiana from hilly southern Indiana. The corn and soybeans are in the north!

    Now if he was moving to Fort Wayne, that would be a whole other proposition. I still haven’t made it to Klamath Falls, but it doesn’t sound so bad.

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  • sh March 7, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    But back to Microcosm… major props on the heart chainring design… the execution is clunky, but to me this is one of the coolest, most outstanding and instantly iconic bikey designs ever. (And for me it will forever be linked with Portland) Luv it, yeah…wish I had thought of it, double-yeah.

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  • N.I.K. March 7, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    “Clunky”? Come on, curves that don’t curve the same look odd when they’re next to each other. “Fixing” it would only make the heart look…well, not particularly like a heart. I think the seeming imperfection lends character.

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  • Cecil March 7, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    I think the heart chain ring is lovely and not the least bit clunky, and if I didn’t already have a chain ring tattoo, I’d get this one instead (yes, I know, I could in theory get this one as well, but in my profession I am already pushing the edge of the visible tattoo envelope and I really see no point in getting a cool tat that’s not visible 🙂

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  • sh March 7, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    slow day on the comments thread, eh? the heart chain ring *is* clunky but entirely loveable – imperfection *does* add character, who’d deny that? I believe that i was praising Micro, if anything…

    just as a comparison, someone elaborated on the idea in a non-clunky way: i like this too: http://www.etsy.com/view_listing.php?listing_id=5171455

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  • N.I.K. March 7, 2007 at 11:37 pm

    http://www.etsy.com/view_listing.php?listing_id=5171455

    The ornate bit with the bird makes me think of the hex signs I saw on numerous old barns growing up in eastern Pennsylvania. It’s very skillfully done, but it’s maybe a bit *too* elaborate…aside from maybe a gallows-laugh about birds nesting in machine refuse, I don’t really “get” anything out of it. Please don’t dismiss this as a simple “I’m not feelin’ it” toss-off, but I really don’t see it conveying a message, whereas the one from Microcosm is so simple that there’s no mistaking the intention behind it.

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  • sh March 8, 2007 at 11:22 am

    okay N.I.K., i can see you’ve got to walk away with some kinda victory here… so, rather than going to the mat over illustration aesthetics, allow me to say that whatever point you feel compelled to make or defend over this Incredibly Important Topic, it’s all yours. Enjoy.

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  • N.I.K. March 8, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    You don’t like discussion and opinions?

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  • Alex Wrekk March 22, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    this article is bunk, but I’m going to try to keep this as diplomatic as possible.

    As Joe Biel’s ex-wife, and at one time, co-owner of Microcosm Publishing, I have kept my criticisms of Microcosm to a minimal since I had to leave there last October. Even in my recent zine I let the story speak for itself, leaving out names and barely touching on issues of the company, leaving the situation described pretty much anonymously. I held A LOT back, not just for personal reason, but for ethical reasons. I understand that what I say about a company I no longer work for affects many other people’s lives.

    But then I heard about this article in local Portland weekly called the Mercury. I heard that Joe expressed that the reason he was leaving Portland for Bloomington, Indiana was that Portland was too gentrified. I thought that was silly and that no one would really buy that excuse… until I read this article: http://www.portlandmercury.com/portland/Content?oid=273558&category=22148

    The interview is full of outright lies, half truths, and blatant misdirections. In fact, I think it is insulting to past and future Microcosm employees, the city of Portland, and pretty much anyone associated with Joe. You know, I don’t have to tell you why Joe left Portland, or even why I THINK Joe left Portland, but he didn’t have to make things up or rearrange time lines to suit his cases or pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.

    I know there are several reasons Joe left Portland and gentrification ranks way down on the list. He easily could have just said “I’m leaving Portland for personal reasons and I’m ready for new challenges and horizons” Or something similarly as diplomatic or PR firm sounding as this press release also listed in the mercury:

    http://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2007/02/microcosm_leaving_portland_1.php

    The person who wrote it should be ashamed of themselves for writing such a complete bunch of misleading, corporate speak sounding lies.

    A few facts: Joe did own property in this gentrified area he claims to hate, he did loose it in the divorce but it is completely a lie that Microcosm was looking and unable to find property in Portland. We actually had a down payment, a contract and had hired and Architect last summer in some new construction but Joe wanted to pull out and already had his sights set on Bloomington. There was no “staff” decision to move and a few people lost their jobs, some willing, some not. There are not two people running things in Portland and the one person staying has only been working for microcosm for less than six months.

    Microcosm is not some amorphous group of happy collectively minded folks stuffing envelopes and sharing vegan candy, In fact, While trying to establish a collective Joe admitted that he didn’t want to work collectively and stated that he didn’t think everyone in the collective should have equals input. Microcosm is the sole vision of Joe Biel these days and his is why I have respectfully asked that they no longer use the Chainring heart image as their logo. Notice; I have not asked them to no longer distribute it, I asked that it no longer be used as the logo. The design was drawn by a friend of Joe and me as a wedding tattoo and we decided to use it as the logo for Microcosm because Microcosm WAS Joe and I and that was what both the company and the image represented. I am no longer with the company and I don’t think it is respectful or fair for Joe to continue to use it against my request.

    So, I had a final straw Friday when it was directed to my attention to Portland’s conservative paper, The Oregonian, that had this article on the front page of the morning edition: http://www.oregonlive.com/oregonian/stories/index.ssf?/base/news/1174015514278420.xml&coll=7 I had to say something.

    It is bad enough for me to feel written out of a history I helped nurture but really, all of these articles make a supposed anarchist sound really really preoccupied with amassing capital and spinning a situation into a ridiculous political and business angle instead of leveling with people who put faith in him and speak to them honestly about where he is coming from. Where is the simple and honest version of Microcosm that I poured my soul into for 7 years?

    That’s another reason I wish for them not to use the Chainring heart image, It is something that represents me, and a good chunk of the almost 30 years I have lived, I’d hate to have that tarnished into what Microcosm is becoming, a company I no longer what to have anything to do with. I have pulled all of my zines and designs from their catalog and I am having Fall of Autumn print the 5th anniversary of Stolen Sharpie Revolution this summer.

    When I said that the Oregonian article was the last straw I really meant that it was the last straw for this round. Joe has repeatedly asked me not to write about this situation, but if he really knew me he would know that asking that is like asking me not to breath. Writing is how I synthesize the world around me, he should know it has always been that way. I do understand that what I say can affect people who have any investment in Microcosm but I feel that Joe is not being truthful with the people who put trust in him and I’m not ok with sitting by and watching that happen.

    Really, the thing that made me realize he was not a person I could deal with reasonably and that I would no longer have any contact with him was this line from an e-mail I couldn’t bring myself to respond to:

    “it’s not particularly my actions that affect microcosm – it’s your decision to write about it.”

    It felt like a big disregard for all of my, and other people’s concerns about his behavior people found questionable. Apparently it’s not about the things he has done affecting his business, it is about someone exposing those things. Knowing that someone I have known for a decade truly thinks like that is really disturbing to me and I decided to break my silence.

    So, I think that’s my peace. I had to say something lest the heaviness in my heart ruin this beautiful Portland Spring.

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  • Molly Cameron March 23, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    Thanks for the clarity.

    I knew you were part of the heart and soul of the company so it felt a little odd to hear it all coming out of Joe’s mouth without one mention of you Alex.

    Glad to hear your side.

    It takes guts to write something like that.

    Bravo.

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  • A Microcosm Author April 11, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    Thanks, Alex. I had been wondering about this side of the story. I suspected it was out there.

    You’ve got more backers than you think.

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