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Exploring the Cleveland roots of Microcosm Publishing

Microcosm Publishing founder Joe Biel, business partner Elly, and dog Ruby [Courtesy Laura Stanfill]
Microcosm Publishing founder Joe Biel, business partner Elly, and dog Ruby [Courtesy Laura Stanfill]

Microcosm Publishing, based in Portland, Oregon, has the pleasure of calling itself the fastest growing independent publisher of the past year, according to Publishers Weekly. The company with Northeast Ohio roots has even more to celebrate with the release to two new books focused on Cleveland.

“Hello, Cleveland” and “Speak in Tongues: An Oral History of Cleveland’s Infamous DIY Punk Venue” are, in a way, a love letter to the formative experiences of Microcosm’s founder and publisher Joe Biel.

Growing up on Cleveland's East Side in the 1980s and ‘90s, Joe Biel started frequenting punk clubs in the region. He found his home at the legendary Speak in Tongues, once located on Lorain Ave. and West 44 th St. 

"I was, am, autistic and wasn't diagnosed, and I didn't know it yet. And so I found a lack of resources and general understanding in the world, and I discovered things like punk rock. There was a club called Speak in Tongues at that time. That was probably one of the first places where I felt comfortable and welcomed," Biel said.

Immersing himself in the punk aesthetic, Biel encountered zines (small handmade magazines) about music, art, politics and any number of subversive subculture topics. Those publications and the ethos that went along with creating art yourself for like-minded individuals inspired Biel to embark on his own publishing journey.

It wasn't long before Biel set up shop with milk crates packed full of zines geared toward providing the kind of resources Biel felt were lacking for him.

Biel said at Microcosm “that's more or less what we do 26 years later."

Microcosm formally started in Cleveland, but in 1999, Biel (and Microcosm) moved to Portland, Oregon.

Microcosm Publishing eventually graduated from simply printing zines, but the business still stays true to many of Biel’s initial topical interests. Most of their releases focus on gender issues, social justice, DIY skills, music, food, bicycling and self-care.

This summer, several of their releases pay homage to the place Biel once called home.

The chronicling of the infamous Speak in Tongues is done by Northeast Ohio writer Eric Sandy, and it stems from an article he wrote about the venue for Scene Magazine in 2016.

Sandy tells the story of Speak in Tongues as an oral history, through first-hand accounts of the individuals who not only attended shows there, but in some cases lived at the venue.

Not only has Microcosm wanted to feature Cleveland in some of their new releases, but with their growth the past few years, it’s now using a distribution warehouse in Northeast Ohio.

"When Microcosm was about 20 years old I started to get worried not that we were losing touch with our roots, but that people wouldn't be able to see our roots," Biel said.

The publisher came up with a disclaimer on the copyright page of every Microcosm book that paid homage to its origins.

Global labor conditions are bad, and our roots in industrial Cleveland in the ‘70s and ‘80s made us appreciate the need to treat workers right. Therefore, our books are MADE IN THE USA and printed on post-consumer paper.

"Most books on your shelf go to great lengths not to tell you anything about the publisher. They're really trying to make the book look as uniform and professional as it can be so you don't know if it's published by Random House or if it's published by, like, a kid in a bedroom. Try to make it look like it's from a gigantic company. But it's just not for me. We've always done our manufacturing in the United States, and that became increasingly rare over the last 25 years. We talked about and landed on something that's a little bit of a softened message. And I was assured that people would get it and read between the lines," Biel said.

Microcosm’s latest Cleveland-centric offering traces a roundabout journey from the notebooks of a now deceased Cleveland rocker, to a house boat in the United Kingdom. “Hello, Cleveland” was inspired by the writings of Mike Hudson, from the ‘70s Cleveland punk band the Pagans. Hudson’s website was filled with rich musings about Cleveland, and Biel intended to turn that into a book.

But after Hudson’s untimely death, Biel asked Nick Perry, an old Cleveland acquaintance, to document the “horns-and-halos, warts-and-all history” of the city, even though Perry is now living on a house boat in England. The book is also illustrated by former Clevelander Jason Look, now living in Atlanta with his wife and child.

Biel acknowledged that his rust-belt upbringing has kept his aspirations unassuming , and his attitude about Microcosm humble.

"You know, it didn't really matter if you failed. It mattered more that you did something interesting and tried,” he said. “That was really inspirational to me. I didn't expect it to succeed. I didn't really even have goals. And I was far more successful than I ever would have guessed."

Learn more about Microcosm Publishing at their website.

- Joe Biel, Founder, Microcosm Publishing

- Nick Perry, author, "Hello, Cleveland"


Drew Maziasz is a coordinating producer for the "Sound of Ideas" and also serves as the show’s technical producer.