Tagged daily cosmonaut

Where We Work: The Story of Our Building

This post was researched and written with Microcosm intern Lydia Rogue.

microcosm's green storefront today
As Microcosm kicks off its 23rd year, we’re taking a look at our history, starting with the building we now occupy with our office and bookstore. When we purchased the building in late 2013, it had already been around for sixty years! We painted over its dull beige exterior with bright green and purple paint that only upset one neighbor enough to leave some alternative sample paint chips taped to our door.

The location was always zoned as a small office space, even when it was originally built in 1953. The original owners were H.C. Plummer & Co, a real estate agency who sold houses all over north Portland.

But it was in 1957 that the most famous occupant moved in – the NAACP moved their credit union here from the house of the organization’s leaders, Otto and Verdell Rutherford; by 1964, the NAACP also had their chapter headquarters here and it was the place you went to register to vote.

three people holding up a calligraphed sign

The 14th Amendment graced the walls of the NAACP headquarters. Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society

Portland has a long history of racism, and during the 1950s and 1960s, the Albina district (where we call home), was one of the few places Black people were allowed to live. Most banks would deny them home loans – and real estate organizations deemed it ‘unethical’ to sell them a home in a ‘white’ neighborhood.

The NAACP advocated strongly for the community and against school segregation and racist real estate practices. Under the Rutherfords’ leadership in 1953, the historic Oregon Public Accommodations Act was passed, making housing discrimination illegal, among a wide range of other changes.

An undated photo taken at the NAACP headquarters – at the far right is Otto Rutherford, next to his daughter Charlotte. Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society.

While most of N Williams has been gentrified over the years, buildings torn down and turned into parking lots and trendy shops, this building remains, nestled between historical markers that proudly document African American history all up and down the road.

The NAACP remained in this building until 1983, when they moved to NE Portland.

This Oregonian news article that ran on August 2, 1983.

The credit union, however, remained for several more years, until the building changed hands yet again in 1990. This time, CH2A & Associates took up residency in the building – a consulting firm that specialized in affirmative action, labor relations, conflict resolution, personnel management, and counseling.

Harold C. Williams Sr. co-founded the firm and was its president at the time of his death in 2012. He had been a community leader and on the board of directors for Portland Community College. His son (Harold C. Williams Jr.), following in his father’s footsteps, currently has an active political career.

Now, we hold down the fort in this building, trying not to freeze in the winter or melt in the summer, and trying every day to live up to the activists who worked here before us.

damaged box

This is What Happens When You Drop a Pallet of Books

When the truck arrived Monday to drop off Manor Threat, the much-anticipated new Snake Pit book, we were excited. New books set off a whole chain of reactions around the office, from smelling them and flipping through the pages and checking the spines and the colors to sending them off to reviewers and customers who’ve pre-ordered them, to updating various spreadsheets and things on our website and social media. This book was running four days late, so we were all extra ready, and people were already starting to walk into the store wanting to buy it.

So imagine the general dismay when Nathan opened up the pallet and found a bunch of the boxes looking like, well, see below. You can imagine that the freshly-printed books inside are not exactly in mint condition, either.

The truck had already driven away. But it was immediately clear what had happened during those four extra days of transit: The pallet had been dropped on its side, possibly from a height, and then strategically repacked with the damaged boxes on the inside of the stack, where they couldn’t be seen without unwrapping and unloading the whole thing. Very canny!

At any rate, there’s your snapshot of a day in the life of book publishing. It’s not all power lunches and polishing sentence structures to a high sheen… in fact, very little of it is. Most of our work honestly consists of dealing with stuff like this. The dreaded dropped-and-repacked pallet scenario has certainly happened before and will likely happen again. The worst part was holding the book an extra few days while we documented the damage and negotiated with the freight company. It throws a wrench in everyone’s work flow.

The good news? Most of the books weren’t damaged, and our shipping team is in the process of getting everyone’s pre-orders out the door this weekend. And the book… if we do say so ourselves, it came out looking really great. If you want your copy asap, you can snag it right here.

Thanks for joining us on this journey through the wonderful world of publishing!

Daily Cosmonaut: Ruby The Wonder-Couch Sharer

deskrubyOn Valentine’s Day in 2013 I finally brought home Ruby, my medical alert service dog, after years of meetings, phone calls, paperwork, and interviews. She’s been a wonderful angel for most of the time since but every day when we go to work she would be stuck sleeping on my the floor next to my chair. She would periodically look up at me, pleadingly. One thing that I hadn’t realized when I had applied for her was that a dog’s range of emotions is identical to a human’s and that Ruby and I were in a committed relationship. I had to look out for her, make her feel loved, and take care of her.


Fortunately, I took quite naturally to this situation. She sleeps in bed with me, leaning against my leg. When I sit on the couch she wants to be napping on my lap. But our work arrangement was not as easily resolved as our home life. I began letting her nap on my lap when I was sitting in my office chair. But she would nervously perk up whenever the chair rotated or leaned and my legs would go numb under her in less than an hour.
I knew that the situation called for desperate measures. Ruby’s work and our relationship allowed me to safely go places unescorted. I swapped out my desk for a series of filing cabinets, attached a monitor arm to one of them, and ordered a mounted swivel tray for my keyboard, mouse, and beverage. I swapped out my chair for the office futon and now not only can Ruby and I take office naps but she can sit next to me all day long and snore as she leans against me, still paying attention to my blood glucose. When we arrive at the office every morning, she immediately bounds over to the futon and pleads me to join her.

Daily Cosmonaut #18: Artifacts of Hood River

IMG_0625On a rainy day in the year 2000 I received a phone call from a man desperately trying to convince me to let him come visit Microcosm’s warehouse. Microcosm’s warehouse at the time was a 12×6’ room in the basement of my home and doubled as my office. A little nervous, I agreed but made him wait in my living room while I grabbed everything. It would be difficult for both of us to fit in the Microcosm room without first removing my desk. Tom bought over 90% of the zines and books that I had in stock. He also asked about many things that I was sold out of. I had to literally reorder everything that week.


I figured that I’d never hear from him again but a month later he called, asking to come back. This time I let him join me in the Microcosm room. Despite being 6’7”, Tom did not bat an eye at having to crouch under the ceiling that I had built to be exactly 6’4” over my head, so I would only have to dodge the bare light bulbs. Tom again bought almost everything and this cycle continues sixteen years later. Only now he visits our store weekly and still leaves a lack of books in his wake.


You see, Tom refuses to use the Internet. Hell, he refuses to even look at a screen. He lives in a cabin in the woods without electricity or running water. His neighbor criticizes him for having a store-bought plastic cooler. Even as modern books couting has evolved into an Internet hunt, Tom has remained refreshingly analog, just like books. He claims that even Aaron Cometbus, a longtime holdout against using computers, finally gave in and expresses regret to Tom for doing so.

Tom is clearly inspired by the book hunt and his built a weekly routine of coming into the city every Wednesday and buying books. He constantly sends customers our way for an “authentic Portland experience” and brings us freshly picked huckleberries from the woods. Tom’s ethics and routines are a firm reminder of why we do the things that we do at Microcosm: to create resources for people who don’t have access to them otherwise so they can change their lives for the better. And while his bookstore, Artifacts in Hood River, has gradually been treated more and more like a gift shoppe for windsurfing tourists, we can still achieve our missions together. Perhaps it’s the perfect irony that Tom will never be able to read this love note.

Daily Cosmonaut #12: Making What’s Familiar vs Making What You Want.

Stamping our logo on a piece of paperIn 2014 at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) trade show, as Microcosm was debuting Erik Spellmeyer and Jamie Floyd’s Brew It Yourself: Professional Craft Blueprints for Home Brewing. A woman came up to us excitedly, saying, this is exactly what my customers want, something that tells you how to design your own beers rather than how to recreate a popular beer recipe at home. “Great!” I exclaimed. Many other store buyers echoed these sentiments.

Admittedly, I had never given the issue much thought. Microcosm had distributed a series of very successful zines about how to make your own beers but they had been focused around how to save money or how to use beer as a fundraiser or how to make very simple alcohol in your cupboard without any experience. When Erik started working in sales at Microcosm, he was an experienced brewer after his years working at Ninkasi. He had more technical knowledge about fermentation and brewing than anyone else at Microcosm so he reviewed the zine that we were about to republish. He called me, concerned.

“Joe, we can’t publish this. There’s a lot of information that’s incorrect. It’s just not…coherent. I should just talk to [Ninkasi founder] Jamie Floyd and we’ll write a new book.”

It was a good idea so I accepted. What I hadn’t counted on was just how many books existed about how to brew beer and how many of those were “official” books from a certain brewery or another. Ours was the only book that was designed to give the reader the necessary information to design the kind of beers they wanted based on their tastes. And I realized in that moment at PNBA that a vital aspect of Microcosm’s mission had always been to give readers enough information for them to make the choices about what they wanted instead of replicating their favorite familiar flavors.

Daily Cosmonaut #10: Slogging Through Intellectual Property



Crusties decipher ipr

Across the turn of the millennium I would enjoy my days of biking for hours, conceiving of slogans and designs to put on stickers and t-shirts. I would edit the text and image in my head until it was bulletproof in terms of meaning and impact. Over the years and as my health waned, my skills faltered because I simply wasn’t incorporating my biking creative time into my work schedule, which became more and more about staring at a blank screen in an office and being forced to be creative on demand while dealing with all manner of bureaucratic nonsense and logistical problems. The result was that good ideas were no longer stemming from my brain like they once had and I began to rely more and more on my work from five, ten, fifteen, and twenty years ago.

I had never thought to protect my original work partially because I trusted people and partially because I lacked the self-confidence to claim it as my own. But over time, the Internet became a vast grabbing ground of ideas and mine lay dormant there for the taking. At first it was incredibly flattering to see dozens and later hundreds of bootlegs of my work popping up all over the world and to run into a street vendor in Medellin, Colombia selling homemade bootlegs of my work or glossy websites in Japan doing the same. But gradually this began to impact our sales, coupled with the recession and the newfound digital ability to freely print your own bootlegs one print at a time via numerous websites. When the City of Portland produced a bicycling evolution image nearly identical to my own and the designer claimed coincidence, I was confused. Surely he’d seen my original. There were nearly 100,000 prints of it circulating around the globe, not even including the bootlegs! Many other people recited misconceptions of the law to me over the years as a justification to steal the work of others or to plead for people not to use their work.

But when a lawyer in Austin became indignant, claiming that I was “harassing” her for using my work to promote her company, it was the final straw. I filed for my trademark protections. And one by one, bootleggers became licensors and there was a clear path to see that the work originated from me. Having this experience across twenty years informed my own way of dealing with other artists’ original work. I’ve done the reading to understand the limits of creative control and fair use laws, the ability to recontextualize an artists’ work in parody or for educational use. It’s been an incredible learning experience and a maze to witness the horrors of the loopholes in the law. Sometimes a tasteful nod to someone’s style, like Tom Neel did in the Henry & Glenn short stories can be an homage. It’s about been tasteful. These lessons led me back to a better-informed version of what I believed in as a teenager: You don’t have to fuck people over to survive.

Daily Cosmonaut #9: Learning Through Writing

Daily cosmonaut


The process of writing GOOD TROUBLE: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. I’ve heard this same thing from authors many times before. It speaks to the unique way that looking at a situation from a nuanced distance and some objectivity and research challenges our conceptions and memories of events. Like traveling, writing in this capacity forces us to look at our lives from a different outside perspective and actually hardens or changes our perspectives. I think this is a very powerful and healthy thing. Often in talking to our authors I feel like how someone feels about this is a good litmus test for assessing their future as a writer. 


Part of writing a book is facing the critical reception that all books undergo and discovering that no reader looks at the events in the same way that the author does or finds the same details to be as relevant, interesting, or revealing. Indeed, Microcosm sent out about 500 advanced reader copies of Good Trouble to people that Taylor, our publicity person, thought would be interested in them. When it’s my own writing that we are promoting, I have to take more of a backseat in the decision making since my opinions are anything but objective; I’m just too close to the subject matter. Nonetheless, it’s been exciting and heartwarming to see how outsiders read the book and what they take away from it. And it doesn’t hurt that the first two reviews have both proven to be incredibly flattering and really “get” the core of the subject matter: that Asperger’s, throughout my life, was both my greatest weakness and my best strength. Once I learned to harness its powers, the former began to fall away and I was left with some of the best of both worlds.


Both reviews and the podcast interview are from people from the creative world, one from a fellow publisher and one from a woman with a similarly creative background. I’m really excited to see more critical reception, good and bad, especially from people who have training in psychology and those outside of my subcultural world. It makes me look at my previous work in a different light–not that I don’t like it anymore but that I could have pushed myself harder. Because that’s how this book helped me develop deeper understandings of events close to me, even those from five, ten, twenty, and thirty years ago.  



Daily Cosmonaut #8: Meet Our New Fence

The fenceOnce upon a time Microcosm was located in a church basement on Ivy Street. We had two and later three adjoining offices. We had a lockable accordian-style door that sectioned off the crawl space under the stairs and a few shelves for warehouse storage. We added a separate room across the building when the boxes were stacked so densely that we could not add one more. We filled every inch of our office and its closets with boxes and then I began filling up my basement at home. When there was indisputably no more room and the landlord raised the rent, it was time to go. We lived holed up in various staff members’ basements and a series of too-small walk-in locations from 2007 until 2010 when we dumped it in all in a big drafty industrial building and signed a deal with a trade distributor to warehouse about 50% of our books.


So imagine our zeal when we moved into our current location in 2014, a mere three blocks from our former church basement, with room to spare. At least it felt that way for a few months. Before long, we were receiving pallets of returns and getting new books every month until offices were turned into storage rooms and we again filled every inch of the building. We tried to work with the city to add more capacity and they said that while they would approve construction of, say, an apartment building or condo on our property, they would not approve any visible on-site storage. Any additions to our building would force us to add an elevator and other expensive zoning standards for new construction.


More fenceSo eventually we found a solution that would work: a fence. Within the height limits and distance from the sidewalk, a fence can create a little privacy and allow for more storage. So over the past 18 months we’ve been steadily under construction and hopefully as a result, we should have enough room for the next two years. This process has forced us to be much more careful about what we publish and how many copies we print. We’ve been teetering close to our tipping point for many years but often that tension can be energizing rather than collapsing.

Who would have thought that such a simple solution could accomplish so much?


Daily Cosmonaut #7: Is Microcosm Sustainable?

Due to Microcosm’s unique history as a record label and peddler of photocopied publications based out of milk crates, we’ve been equally ignorant of and immune to the changing culture and climate of more mainstream publishing houses. When innumerable peers and beloved presses were going under due to lack of distributor payments or collapsing financial support during the recession, we wondered why this wasn’t affecting us more. Don’t get me wrong, we were undeniably harmed and had to adapt by major changes in the U.S. economy, but to the tune of 20% of our income, not 50-90% of our income like the horror stories that we were hearing.

But these experiences leave us with a question: How sustainable is Microcosm? We’ve written about this a bit in the past, like in our 2014 annual report, when we first got back on track, but let’s look at this a bit further. In this article about comic shops, you can see a particularly bleak and skeptical view of selling paper in brick and mortar. We created these graphics to further illustrate the point that where you shop does matter when you are supporting authors:

Because of this, we have a loyal and supportive following that would rather support us than the Big A and are interested and invested in our mission and what we publish. As you can see on the chart to the right (especially if you click on it), the kind of channels that a book is sold through make a major difference in how many you have to sell to support yourself. In our case, the money that comes in each day is the same as the money that we pay out to our authors, our bills, our printer, and our staff. Admittedly, we run a pretty close game most months on our $34,000 in monthly operating expenses and have spent the last few years adjusting the pie so that our staff can get paid more in an increasingly expensive city. And also admittedly, if we did not have so many successful backlist titles, we would not be able to publish new books every month. Our roughly 25 bestselling books pay for everything we do. So we are here for the long haul but mostly because we closely watch our data and are responsive to a changing industry. Wait, scratch that. We’ve often been ahead of the industry in changes and that is probably the number one reason we are still here.

Daily Cosmonaut #6: Are you our role model?

Daily cosmonaut


For the last two years Microcosm has been on a quest. We need someone to look up to. We turn 20 years old on Feb 12 and while we are doing fine and even growing, we have been looking for a role model.

Microcosm has been completely independent without any silent partners or financial support for its entire existence. Most publishers of our age have long ago been sold to a larger company or gone out of business. In fact we’ve had a very hard time finding any companies that are: independent, not publicly traded, larger than us, and doing things that are actually interesting and challenging to the culture around them. Patagonia seems to be our current only example. Each time we investigate a likely candidate, we discover that they are actually owned by Coca-Cola or are actually deceptively small or that they are operated on someone’s family money and do not need to be financially solvent like we do.


We want a business role model so we can have someone to look towards when we are making difficult decisions or are out of our element. We are looking for someone larger and more successful than us to pose the difficult questions to that most people wouldn’t be able to understand or see coming. We want to continue to grow, stay independent, and be the best Microcosm that we can be. But so far it’s hard to find the right role model. Are you our business role model?