The Rise and Co-optation of Microcosm Publishing

Microcosm Publishing books at Urban Outfitters. "Grow" and native appropriation shirts.

By Jim Fromm


Portland, Ore.-based Microcosm Publishing, a self-described “radical publishing house,” is distributing books through sweatshop apparel dealer Urban Outfitters, a corporation with a lengthy record of bigoted and exploitative policies. Last year, the dissolution of the Microcosm Collective left Microcosm Publishing under the sole ownership and management of founder Joe Biel, whom has an alarming history of exploitative and patriarchal behavior.

Fear and Loathing in Portlandia

Joe Biel started Microcosm Distro in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1996, and moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1999. As Microcosm grew, workers began efforts to collectivize the publishing house and were undermined by Biel. In 2006, Biel’s ex-wife Alex Wrekk publicly stated that Biel had been emotionally abusive. Wrekk later summarized:

Joe and I were romantically involved for 6 years, three of which we were married. I ‘worked’ for/with Microcosm from 1999-2006. I left my personal relationship with Joe Biel when I realized I was not respected, supported, or valued in our relationship and, through several catalysts, came to understand that he was emotionally abusive in our personal relationship. I left Microcosm when I realized that the same abusive mechanisms in our personal relationship, were present in our working conditions. While (we) were attempting to collectivize Microcosm Joe continued to make unilateral executive decisions without the input of other collective members as well as revoked my responsibilities and undermined my autonomy. After I quit Microcosm Joe soon moved the company half way across the country and hired new people.”

Microcosm moved to Bloomington, Indiana, in 2007. In 2008, Microcosm moved back to Portland while Joe Biel and Alex Wrekk attempted a mediation process through counselors. After that failed, Alex Wrekk and Cindy Crabb attempted to establish an accountability process in 2010 with a team in Ohio, the Athens Support Group. Cindy Crabb stated after the mediation attempts:

This statement is to let it be known that despite Microcosms recent public statement finally acknowledging Joe Biel’s abusive and manipulative behavior, I will not be distributing Doris though Microcosm any longer. They published Doris 23, the Doris Anthology, the Support zine and Learning Good Consent, so I don’t have control of those publications.

“In July, 2010, I asked Microcosm to write a statement, or have each collective member contact me with a personal statement, as a precondition to my continuing to work with them. I was following my sincere belief that organizations should have a chance to admit to the abusive behaviors of members, and that as long as they show a commitment to change, they should not necessarily be shunned.”

Microcosm continues to sell Cindy Crabb’s work.

In 2011, Microcosm closed the Bloomington location and opened a warehouse in Kansas, where several Microcosm Collective members and new Microcosm co-owner Jessie Duke lived. Around this time Sparky Taylor as well came forward to state:

As a member of Microcosm for 4 years and a former partner of Joe Biel, I am sad to say that I no longer support Microcosm Publishing. I cannot support a group of people who so adamantly claim to oppose abuse, but in practice have let it continue for years. This abuse was perpetrated against me, and I have remained largely silent in hopes that Microcosm could be salvaged. I no longer believe this is possible.”

On June 20, the collective issued a statement that “Joe stepped down from being a collective member, and Microcosm will be collectively owned by the remaining members by the end of this year.” (The statement has since been removed from Microcosm’s website.)

In summer 2012, nearly 100 “zine distributors, zine-makers, library and infoshop collectives, community accountability supporters, and festival organizers from the DIY (queer, feminist, punk and/or anarcha-) community” signed a letter requesting that Microcosm address collectivization and Biel’s continued ownership of Microcosm Publishing. Soon after, the Microcosm Collective disbanded.

The subsequently-formed Pioneers Press stated in their debut catalog:

Our staff is made up entirely of ex-Microcosm Publishing collective members. In case you didn’t hear, on August 1, 2012, we finally broke away from Microcosm Publishing to form the new “Microcosm Distribution.” When we initially split we wanted to keep the “Microcosm” name, as a way to own up to our mistakes and to celebrate and honor all the hard work we and past Microcosm staffers put into that organization. We wanted to make the “Microcosm” name something we could be proud of again. While we tried to keep things peaceful between us and Microcosm Publishing, our relationship deteriorated even further post-split and we are now NOT ASSOCIATED WITH MICROCOSM PUBLISHING IN ANY WAY. Sharing the “Microcosm” name was terribly problematic, and the daily reminder of our history with Microcosm became less a celebration of moving on and more of a trigger for stress, anger and disappointment. Most importantly though, we don’t want to be associated with a company that doesn’t share our ethics, and we don’t want our using the “Microcosm” name to give the false impression that we in any way support Microcosm Publishing or Microcosm Publishing Owner/Founder Joe Biel. [Emphasis is authors’.]”

In summer 2013, Jessie Duke publicly shared a letter to Alex Wrekk saying:

One of the ex-Portland staffers recently said to me, “It was like we were in a cult or something. It was just crazy.” XXXXXX told us at one point that we were “drinking the Kool-Aid” and she was so right…I see now how Joe played you and XXXXXX and me off each other and how my negative encounters with the two of you made it so much harder to hear what you were saying. He had this evolving explanation for everything that would happen. If we were critical, he played the victim…

“For close to the last two years of working for Microcosm, Joe kept telling us that he was “de-investing” and gave us the impression that he would eventually leave. It’s the only reason Rio, Adam and I stuck it out at the end. It felt “unfair” that all of us – including you and the original Microcosm collective members – would have all been pushed out and that Joe would get his dream of dumping the collective and going back to being the boss again. That he was going to profit from all the work that all of us put into Microcosm. That he would just replace us and start the cycle of abuse all over again.”

Microcosm touts its transparency by releasing an annual income statement, and states its workers start at $9, with a wage-cap of $13. However, these things say nothing about the equity accrued to Joe Biel as Microcosm’s sole owner, which would be shown by a balance sheet or cash flow statements.

The recession and possibly the collective split have impacted Microcosm’s finances. Between 2010 and 2012, Microcosm’s income fell 31%. In the 2012 financial statement Biel mentions:

We’ve resolved a tremendous amount of old debt so big thanks and hugs to everybody who stuck with us this year. We are still working on re-instating last year’s reduced wages and healthcare…”

…indicating a sizable portion of Microcosm’s cash flow must be going to Biel’s equity, at the expense of Microcosm’s employees.

In an ironic move, Microcosm Publishing states on its online F.A.Q.:

Why the focus on zines?

“To borrow the words of Chris Landry, ‘Zines are the best expression of the d.i.y. ethics of the punk rock subculture. While bands can be co-opted into the mainstream and the music scene continues to be male-dominated and increasingly a-political, zines have been keeping it true.’ “

The Company You Keep

Richard Hayne after shedding his hippie skin.

Richard Hayne after shedding his hippie skin.

Do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) titles from Microcosm Publishing were found on Urban Outfitters’ website, and on the shelves at each of Urban Outfitters’ Seattle locations. Urban Outfitters operates over 400 stores internationally, including the brands Anthropolgie, Free People, BHLDN and Terrain (garden centers). Microcosm Publishing books sighted on Urban Outfitters’ shelves and website include Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job! by Eleanor Whitney, Making Stuff and Doing Things by Kyle Bravo, Barefoot and In the Kitchen by Ashley Rowe, and Homesweet Homegrown by Robyn Jasko. Microcosm Publishing owns one storefront in southeast Portland, Oregon.

Urban Outfitters’ CEO Richard Hayne co-founded the hippie Philadelphia boutique in the 1960’s, and grew it into a corporate empire. Infamously, Urban Outfitters sold a “Navajo” line, 21 products including flasks and “Navajo Hipster Panties.” After a cease-and-desist letter from the Navajo Nation, Urban Outfitters pulled the line from its own stores but continued distributing it through other retailers. Urban Outfitters continues to appropriate Native cultures in its product designs, including the same “Navajo” prints now relabeled. Sasha Houston Brown wrote about the appropriation:

Urban Outfitters Inc. has taken Indigenous life ways and artistic expressions and trivialized and sexualized them for the sake of corporate profit. It is this kind of behavior that perpetuates the stereotype of the white man’s Indian and allows for the ongoing commodification of an entire ethnic group. Just as our traditional homelands were stolen and expropriated without regard, so too has our very cultural identity.”


Is Microcosm Publishing spreading Santorum?

Richard Hayne also has a history of association with homophobia. He donated $13,150 to Rick Santorum, and in 2008, Urban Outfitters pulled a pro-same-sex marriage shirt from its shelves. Urban Outfitters has additionally carried women’s t-shirts stating “Eat Less,” and clothing showing a person kneeling and vomiting with the caption “Irish Yoga.”

Hayne has admitted Urban Outfitters uses sweatshops and busts unions. Workers are brutally repressed in countries were Urban Outfitters apparel is made, such as Bangladesh. Last year, Bangladeshi union organizer Aminul Islam was kidnapped, slowly dismembered and killed by agents of apparel factory bosses. Mr. Islam was campaigning for an increase in the lowest minimum wage on the planet ($38 a month). Hayne has stated union-made clothing would cost too much. Bangladeshi workers are demanding $102 a month and safe working conditions. In the last year, industrial disasters have killed thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh, including 1,129 people in the Savar building collapse and 120 people in the Ashulia factory fire.

Even as U.S. apparel manufacturers “reshore,” workers’ rights don’t follow: a Labor Department sweep of the L.A. Fashion District last year netted 10 contractors violating minimum wage laws, overtime laws and more. The domestic sweatshops were producing clothes for Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, and Ross, among others. Workers were paid less than $6.50 an hour. Urban Outfitters also has an extensive history of stealing designs from independent craft workers. Urban Outfitters previously sold Fanzines: The D.I.Y. Revolution by Teal Triggs, a controversial book for ripping-off zines without authors’ permissions, including zines “copylefted” as explicitly not for commercial reproduction.

An image from an actual American Apparel ad in a wheatpastable spoof ad.

An image from an actual American Apparel ad in a wheatpastable spoof ad.

Microcosm has previously acknowledged the questionable decision to source it’s t-shirts from American Apparel (AA). AA advertisements have posed models as porn stars, drugged women, corpses, and children, glorifying rape culture. Dov Charney, the founder and CEO, has been repeatedly sued by employees claiming they were sexually harassed and/or coerced into sex. Most of the cases have settled out of court. Asked for comment, Charney told one reporter: “Women initiate most domestic violence…out of a thousand cases of domestic violence, maybe one is involving a man.”

In 2003, AA workers began organizing a union to demand affordable healthcare benefits, sick leave, and an end to harassment. Management retaliated by spying on workers, interrogating workers, banning organizers, forcing workers to attend anti-union rants, lying about organizers, and threatening to lock-out workers. (BONUS FACT: Charney’s first full-time job was scabbing for the Canadian government during a postal workers strike.) Microcosm states “as a commitment to our ethics, our books are printed by union workers,” but this ethic does not seem to extend to other products.

Apparel companies throw around the labels “Made in the U.S.A.” and “sweatshop-free,” but exploitation, oppression and abuse persist in the industry.

The Hipster-Industrial Complex

D.I.Y. books at Urban Outfitters.

Some D.I.Y. books at Urban Outfitters.

Biel claims Microcosm Publishing is a radical for-profit run as a non-profit, but the evidence is accumulating that Microcosm is neither radical nor not-for-profit. The stories of Urban Outfitters and Microcosm Publishing illuminate co-optation (or recuperation), divorcing a radical label from actual solidarity. Alex Wrekk asked, “What if your private life in your relationship is vastly different than what other people see?” Some call this too-common pattern “whitewashing” when businesses do it, or a “Jekyll and Hyde personality” when individuals abusers do it. Microcosm Publishing operates by neither radical means nor ends.

The strange parallels of Richard Hayne and Joe Biels’ stories also illustrate the trouble with small business. Anarchists oppose hierarchies, but often fall into the leftist trap of “large hierarchies = bad, so, smaller hierarchies = good!” and become apologists for small business. As a Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) organizer observes:

The problem with all of these popular ideas surrounding small businesses is that they completely fall apart if you spend any time with the workers whose hard work actually allows them to succeed. If my time in SeaSol has taught me anything, it is that the only meaningful difference between the horrible exploitation and other crimes of big business around the world and those of the small businesses right down my street is scale…

“The problem with small businesses is the same as the problem with big businesses: the incredible power the owner has to exploit his workers. If an owner loses a worker, then the worker can generally be readily replaced from the growing mass of desperate and unemployed people out there. But if a worker loses his job, then his livelihood, his very means of survival, and (in America) even his family’s health are in jeopardy…There can be no justice when there is a power differential of this magnitude between owners and workers. No matter how large or small the business may be, the fundamental nature of the relationship between workers and owners remains the same.”

And as Crimethinc. points out:

If a business isn’t doing so well, it’s run by petty thieves who are failing. They would like to steal your money by paying you less than you earn them, but they can’t, not yet. I don’t know about you, but a burglar who can’t figure out how to open the window of my house still isn’t my friend.”

Small business apologetics plus Microcosm’s market dominance has insulated Joe Biel from criticism, enabling him to induce authors, distributors and employees to try to “stick it out,” or replace their turnover. As Cindy Crabb noted in hindsight:

The truth was, I benefited from being published and distributed by Microcosm. I was overwhelmed by dealing with abuse in my immediate community, and didn’t want to look too closely at my complacency regarding Microcosm.”

One zinester aptly described Microcosm as “the Wal-mart of zine distros.” Biel has accumulated equity, intellectual property, reputation and distribution networks, and is now positioned to profit greatly from apolitical D.I.Y. fads. Biel’s partnership with Urban Outfitters shores up Microcosm’s shaky finances, while Urban Outfitters shores up its hipster image.

As resource prices increase and employment stagnates, D.I.Y. culture is becoming complementary to capitalism, filling in for the collapsing welfare state. Green and hipster capitalists, the merchants of guilt-free consumerism, are even profiting off it. But as the histories of Microcosm, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel show, this hipster-industrial complex is just as rife with exploitation, racism and sexism (ironic and outright) as the rest of the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.

Anarchism calls for a consistency between our means and our ends. Truly, the medium is the message. The medium of zines speaks of decentralization, empowerment and community. How can we adapt the mediums available to unleash a material gift economy? What might an actually antagonistic D.I.Y. culture look like? It certainly isn’t buying manuals from Urban Outfitters, working for small businesses, and planting gardens on our landlords’ properties in gentrifying (read: ethnic cleansing) neighborhoods. An antagonistic D.I.Y. culture could develop the practices of forming affinity groups (do-it-together) to freely share skills, squat land and housing, shoplift food and supplies, and help reorganize the entire economy – while resisting all forms of oppression.

Microcosm’s D.I.Y. books sit on Urban Outfitters’ shelves alongside titles on science, wilderness survival, Banksy, foreign languages and travel. The co-optation of D.I.Y. culture has at least one benefit for anarchists: the liberation of mass-produced items.


One thought on “The Rise and Co-optation of Microcosm Publishing

  1. Pingback: When radical zine publishers go to court: The story of Pioneers Press and Microcosm Publishing | GRASSTRONAUT!!!!!!!

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