Hidden in a warm, eclectic house along a quiet street in Clintonville are the offices of successful local indie publishing company Two Dollar Radio. In this digital age, it’s possible to run a whole company out of your living room on a desk with just a sleek black monitor and an accompanying laptop, which is exactly what husband and wife duo Eric Obenauf and Eliza Wood-Obenauf do.
The ambitious literary inclinations of the home’s residents only fully reveal themselves once you make your way to the basement, where you’re confronted with shelves and shelves of fierce, eye-catching books in all colors, with beguiling titles like Crapalacia, The Orange Eats Creeps, and Nog written out in thick, inventive fonts.
This indie press has style.
Eric and Eliza, the owners and almost only staff (“we recently hired Molly!” Eliza notes), founded Two Dollar Radio in 2005 in San Diego but grew it with care during a year in New York City and another five-year stint in Granville, Ohio. From there, they moved to Clintonville, where they have seen the continued success of their business—often their releases are featured on the year-end lists at places like NPR, and their books have a habit of being considered for film adaptations.
Despite all the flattering press directed at their press, Eric and Eliza tell me over tea and conversation in their office-slash-living room that they haven’t been inclined to return to the New York lifestyle, despite their New York friends’ harsh reactions.
“When we were telling friends in New York [about moving to Ohio], it was like we were dying,” Eric laughs.
But Clintonville, he says, “is a neighborhood we love.” He continues, “so many people here are doing something really creative. We met another parent who has kids at Clinton Elementary. He studied Spanish literature, so he translated some text for us for a graphic novel we’re publishing this summer.”
Eliza elaborates, “We did start in New York. And there was this feeling of having to go to the right parties, meet the right people, do that whole song and dance, which is not in our personalities.” Columbus, she explains, “is not so pretentious in that way. It’s about what you’re doing and not what you’re wearing, where you met, who you talked to.”
Here, Eric says, “When we have authors in town, they stay in our guestroom.”
The sense of radical individuality is present in everything Eric and Eliza do with Two Dollar Radio. Their fingerprints are on every immaculately crafted element of the company. Eric handles acquisition, they share communication and business duties, Eliza does internal layouts and technical design, Eric does the cover art, they both work with their distributor Consortium.
One of my biggest questions is how the two have been so sharp and intentional in their publishing choices, such that they’ve built a catalogue of releases consistently hailed as challenging, bold, and even punk. What makes a book, true to the company’s tagline, “too loud to ignore”?
“If the setting is L.A. or New York, he’s bored already,” Eliza explains when breaking down Eric’s process, as sole acquisitions editor, of choosing the six standout manuscripts a year from an estimated 1,600 submissions. Hallelujah to that. Too often, the prevailing narrative in media is that the only stories worth telling are those set in one of the two famous metropolises.
Eric laments, “Like True Detective season two! Agh!”
By contrast, he explains, there was a unique setting in season one of True Detective—and in every Two Dollar Radio book.
Other crucial qualities: strong voice, creative structure, and flat-out ambitious writing, especially when that means eschewing “well-crafted, formulaic, MFA workshop-type stories.”
“What we’re looking for,” Eric says, “is the more distinctive, singular works. What impresses me are those writers who clearly know and understand that formula and are then able to creatively subvert it entirely. The ambitious work is what we’re drawn to.”
I ask how these guidelines play out in the diversity of their authors.
The ultimate goal, Eliza tells me, “is to have our catalog be 50/50 gender equal. Which is difficult,” because there are many more male authors sending in manuscripts than women.
The team intentionally set out to tackle that ratio and had one stretch where they published six female writers in a row. Their next goal is to take an active approach to finding and publishing more writers of color, with upcoming releases showcasing work by Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo and South African writer Masande Ntshanga, recently the winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award.
The Two Dollar crew is an ambitious one. To make a mark as an independent press is impressive enough on its own, but now they’re expanding their voice by embarking on micro-budget film production.
The teaser trailer for their newest film The Removals, written and directed by Two Dollar Radio author Nicholas Rombes, has recently been released, and when I ask Eric to describe the plot, he dives in with the articulation of someone with a background in film, explaining the premise as “a secret, nefarious group that uses symbols that embody the mission of their work, which is to remove originality from society. They go about doing this by duplicating or repeating events that have already taken place, thereby undercutting the originality of the moment.” He summarizes with a laugh, “So. Kind of a tough nut to crack.”
The film also features iconic Columbus locations as settings in the movie. There are scenes at the Park of Roses, the notorious concrete Blood Bowl, the basement of Spoonful Records, Short North vintage store Flower Child, and Cafe Bourbon Street.
“Everyone was so open to letting us film there,” Eric says. “In New York or L.A., people are like ‘give me a thousand dollars and then we’ll talk.’”
Eliza agrees. “No one’s jaded [here] yet.”
Ultimately, the two hope to further cultivate a community around literature with a physical storefront in the North Campus area. The location will be “a bookstore and a coffee shop,” Eric explains. “And it wouldn’t just sell Two Dollar Radio books, but also other independent presses and authors.”
“Right now,” Eliza says, “we are literally in our living room doing everything. The bookstore is going to be our way to connect to the community. And we’re excited about that. We feel supported. There is so much love.” •
Two Dollar Radio’s second feature film, The Removals, will premiere on May 4 at the Wexner Center, and their next two books, Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan’s Daniel Johnston and Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive, are set to be released on June 7 of this year. To learn more about Two Dollar Radio and to figure out what books to read based on an awesomely specific flowchart, visit twodollarradio.com.