A bike outfitted with a zine bookshelf squeezes into Microcosms new store space.
  • A bike outfitted with a zine bookshelf squeezes into Microcosm's new store space.
The most prominent distributor of zines and DIY literature in the United States is located (no surprise) right here in Portland, Oregon. For the past year and half, Microcosm's Portland storefront has been squished into a closet-sized space on SE 8th and Main. But they just finished expanding into the storefront next door, which means their entire collection of vegan cookbooks, screenprinting guides and revolutionary ephemera is now squished into two closet-sized spaces.

I was surprised that Microcosm was expanding during the Great Recession and stopped by last week to see how the little publishing company was staying alive given the collapse of markets, the death of books, etc etc. Scruffy production manager Joe Biel was manning the counter, his voice hoarse and body stiff from a recent bike accident that left him with a broken rib, but he gave me a rundown on how Microcosm was managing to expand while other book stores are folding up shop.

Microcosm publishes about 12 books a year, in addition to distributing roughly 3,000 zines and cheap books published by others. The company banks on one of those 12 books becoming a big success, and that's exactly what happened this year.

This is the book that kept Microcosm alive.
  • Microcosm
  • This is the book that kept Microcosm alive.
As of last June, Microcosm was in dire financial straits. "our daily sales had dropped 75 percent. It was to the point where we were all looking at working for free for a little while," says Biel. But then one new book, Raleigh Brigg's Make Your Place, got gushing praise on a bigtime craft blog and sales jumped from several hundred a month to over 200 a day. The book made it on to the Powell's bestsellers list and everyone at Microcosm got to keep their paychecks for another year.

The staff realized that if they closed the small store one hour earlier, the saved money would cover monthly rent on the space next door. "The books have some room to breathe now," says Biel. Check out their new digs next time you're down in the SE industrial district.