In my hometown of Mentor, Ohio, it seemed like everyone around town knew Joe Biel. He was a few years older than me, and was known for selling “zines” at punk shows in Cleveland.
Those zines eventually led to Biel starting Microcosm Publishing—an independent publishing and distribution company—in 1996; in 1999, Biel relocated to Portland, Ore.
On the 20th anniversary of his company, Biel has now released a book that’s quite personal—Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger’s.
During a recent phone interview from Portland, Biel discussed his upbringing in Ohio, and his discovery of punk rock.
“My family life was pretty bad as a kid. My dad was disabled, and my mom was really violent,” Biel said. “Between those things, when I found punk rock around 1992, it helped me find a moral compass and find a more productive use of my energy and my time. Then when I started zines a few years later, it was sort of my way of giving back to something that had been really meaningful to me.”
That punk-rock ethos has helped Microcosm thrive as an independent publishing and distribution company, even through the current downturn that publishing companies have endured. Biel said he was determined to start a publishing company.
“It’s a little bit tacky and cliché, but … (after) being born in the ’70s and growing up through the end of red scare, most of my neighbors’ dads were laid off and hired back for a lower wage,” Biel said. “It just felt like nothing meant anything. I felt like I should do something that was meaningful. … My values were more meaningful to me than financial goals or any other type of success.”
Biel’s relocation to Portland in 1999 came after what some would consider to be a tragic moment in one’s life. Biel made the best of the situation.
“I lived in a house, and it burned down in a fire,” he explained. “It was a totally liberating moment where I lost my stuff, and it was just totally freeing. I knew a bunch of people who wanted to move to Portland, and it seemed different. It was during a time when my friends were developing drug habits, having accidental kids or being totally screwball. Moving to Portland with a group of people didn’t seem like something I expected to last. That was all an accident.”
Microcosm Publishing features a variety of titles on everything from bicycles, to veganism, to social-justice advocacy.
“I think most books sell into people’s insecurities, self-hate and shame. We focus the most on trying to make people feel good about themselves and confident, and to create the change they want to see in the world,” Biel explained. “There are so many books out there that try to make you hate your body, (express) fundamental hatred, or just thrive on insecurities. It’s about being the you that you want to be.”
While Microcosm Publishing has done well, a nasty dispute between Biel and his now-ex-wife—which included accusations of Biel being emotionally abusive—led some to call for a boycott of Microcosm. Biel has also faced a series of health problems and as a diagnosis of Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder.
“I had been married in 2002, and I was divorced two years later. It had been a pretty bad relationship and I ended up in therapy,” Biel said. “… At one point, the therapist looked at me, and as I was leaving one day, I just casually mentioned that I could not see people’s emotions or facial expressions—anything to indicate there was something beyond the words they were saying. She just kind of looked at me and asked me, ‘Did you have childhood (brain) trauma?’ I was like, ‘What? What was that?’ She said I probably had Asperger’s. I learned about Asperger’s before, and I was pretty obsessed with it at the time, but I never thought it was something that affected me. I was eventually properly diagnosed.”
Biel said that he was comfortable letting the public have a look inside of his private life, his failures, his successes—and some of his funny experiences.
“By the time I was ready to embark on writing it, I pretty much knew who I was and how I felt about things. It was a pretty good litmus test, so I didn’t really get nervous about it,” he said. “I’ve been a public person for a long time now, so I’m used to not having much of a private life. For me, it was a little bit easier, and I learned the hard way that when I don’t talk about my life or myself, people tend to fill in the gaps in the most unflattering of ways. If I bottle that up and try to hold it in, it doesn’t work very well. It’s better for me to inform the narrative around myself. I feel like most of the things I’ve done are sort of embarrassing, but also a little bit funny, so there’s a value to it.”
Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger’s
By Joe Biel
256 pages, $14.95