Liberty

Current Issue | Archive | Subscription Services | Liberty Store | Writers' Guide | Editors & Staff | Search | Donate | FreedomFest 2009 | Free sample issue

January-February 2008
Volume 22,
Number 1

  History of Liberty  

"Laissez Faire": R.I.P.?

by Bruce Ramsey

Thirty-six years ago, when libertarianism was just a gleam in the eyes of a few individuals, a wonderful institution was started — a bookstore, of course.


Laissez Faire Books, one of libertarians' major ways of identifying and acquiring good things to read, announced on Oct. 13 that it was going out of business. Then, in mid-November, as were going to press, it announced that it had been bought by the International Society for Individual Liberty, and would retain its laissezfaire.org web page. It had already sold its web page www.lfb.com.

Bruce Ramsey is a journalist in Seattle.

For a month, we thought LFB was done. It had been a remarkable institution, and we had prepared the following story about it. That there is a serious effort to keep it going is good news, but its fate remains in doubt, and its story, the story of its rise and struggle and the reasons for its possible demise, is still worth telling.

Begin with what LFB's competitors, amazon.com, abebooks.com, and others have done in the book business. Said Andrea Millen Rich, who ran LFB through its most prosperous and influential period, "Earlier this year, my own husband bought [Milton Friedman's] 'Capitalism and Freedom' from Amazon. I said, 'How could you, of all people, buy it from Amazon?' He said, 'Well, I was ordering some books from them, and I just thought of it.' That is what happened to Laissez Faire Books. It became so easy to buy from Amazon instead."

That is part of the reason for LFB's peril. The other part is that LFB's catalogue has not been as sprightly and provocative as it once was, and it has not offered as many really good new titles as it once did. The bookselling world changed, Laissez Faire Books changed, and maybe the libertarian world changed too. Wrote Rich's successor, Kathleen Nelson, in her announcement: "I suppose the market has spoken."

It has, though perhaps not finally.

~~~

John Muller, a civil engineer, and Sharon Presley, a student in psychology at the City University of New York, were the founders of Laissez Faire Books. On March 4, 1972, they opened a small storefront in New York's Greenwich Village, and had a party with such luminaries as Murray Rothbard, Roy Childs, and Jerome Tuccille. It was a time when radicalism burned hot. Recalled Presley, "We saw ourselves as part of what Albert Jay Nock called 'The Remnant' — a small minority who understood the nature of the State and who would be left when the current insanity became unworkable."

"It ain't easy dealing with some of these genius types. But it was certainly worthwhile."

LFB's Mercer Street store became a social center for New York libertarians. "It was always intended to be more than just a bookstore," said Presley, now a lecturer at California State University, East Bay. "We created a community of people who maybe didn't know how to get in touch with each other. We held events. Peter Breggin spoke, and Edith Efron." There were also film showings, such as the various episodes of the science-fiction TV series "The Prisoner."

LFB was a place to visit from afar. Prof. Peter Boettke of George Mason University recalled buying Carl Menger's "Principles of Economics" (1871) in that store. Prof. Aeon Skoble of Bridgewater State College fondly remembers discovering Steve Ditko's "Static" underground comics. In a rare cross-country visit in 1983, I was delighted to reel in a copy of H.L. Mencken's "Treatise on the Gods" (1930).

"Laissez Faire Books carried everything that was libertarian," said Andrea Rich. "There was so little in those days — and they had all of it."

But LFB did not make money. Even though it was a tiny store, yet grossed more than $100,000 in 1980, the owners "just couldn't keep it going," as Rich recalls.

One day, she heard that LFB was about to go out of business. "I talked to Howie about it" — referring to her husband, property-rights activist Howard Rich — "and we bought it, in February 1982." Andrea and Howard brought a practical attitude toward the store. "This was a business," she said. "All these very lofty things about keeping the movement going were great, but this was a business, and if we didn't conduct it like a business, there was going to be nothing."

To survive, LFB had to sell more books, and the way to do it was mail-order. LFB had advertised in libertarian magazines, and from 1972 to 1977, had published Laissez Faire Review — a review and catalogue. Andrea Rich, helped by Howard, set out to build up the mail-order business. "We bought lists, 50,000 to 70,000 names," Andrea says. LFB eventually developed a roll of 25,000 to 30,000 names and kept it fresh for many years.

"It was always intended to be more than just a bookstore. We created a community of people who maybe didn't know how to get in touch with each other."

There were hiccups, especially at the start. "We had this beautiful two-color mailing, very expensive on high-quality paper, for [Murray Rothbard's] 'The Ethics of Liberty,' " Andrea recalls. "We were all sitting there, stuffing these envelopes by hand, and I noticed that it said, 'The Ethnics of Liberty.' Oh my God, we had to destroy the whole thing."

About this time, Laissez Faire Books was given a hand by the proprietors of the Conservative Book Club: Neil McCaffrey, Jr., his son Neil III, and his daughter Maureen. "They were hugely bigger than us," Andrea said, "and they didn't have all that much reason to help us." But they did, first by renting their mailing lists, and then by pointing out what other lists to rent and what book shows to attend.

In 1984, the company changed its status to nonprofit — not out of a disdain for profits or the lack thereof, but because it saved $60,000 a year in postage.

Also in 1984, the company hired Roy Childs. He was a movement firebrand who had allied himself with anarchists Karl Hess and Walter Block and had made a splash in 1969 with his "Open Letter to Ayn Rand." He was also the libertarian movement's premier writer on books. In the mid-1970s he had edited Bob Kephart's newsletter, Books for Libertarians, which later became Libertarian Review. Editing that magazine, which was kept alive through 1981 by Wichita oilman Charles Koch, had been the high point of Childs' life. But the magazine was gone, and in 1984 Childs went back to selecting, reading, and expounding on books.

He was extraordinarily good at it. "Roy understood that he was not just describing these books to people." Andrea recalled. "Roy had a way of making the review of a book into something you wanted to eat. What he would write would be so sensuous, so passionate, so delicious, that you didn't just read it. You wanted to consume it."

"It was not always easy dealing with Roy," she said. "You gave him a deadline, and it was laughable. Just totally laughable. We finally got to the point where we were paying him for a delivery: 'You give me a review, I give you a check.' It ain't easy dealing with some of these genius types. But it was certainly worthwhile."

Childs was LFB's intellectual artillery. "I was never that," Andrea said. "Lots of people thought I read every book we sold. That was not me. I didn't read all these books. I just sold them."

New editors bring new offerings. Under Sharon Presley, LFB sold such feminist works as "Concerning Women" (1926) by Suzanne LaFollette. It was strong on libertarian-themed science fiction — Eric Frank Russell's "The Great Explosion" (1962), for example. It was strong on anarchism, carrying the works of individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner and left-anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin. Presley recalled a visit to the store by Bob Dylan, who asked for haiku. She explained that LFB was an anarchist bookstore, and referred him to a copy of "The IWW Songbook." He looked at it but did not buy.

"The official Randians were shocked and horrified that they were getting things in the mail for a libertarian book service. And they did not write, `Please remove my name from your mailing list.' `Please' was never part of it."

"I was not as knowledgeable about science fiction as Sharon was," Andrea said. "I would carry the obvious things, but I didn't find and discover the new stuff unless they were the guys who hung out at Laissez Faire." Neil Schulman was one, and the catalogue carried his "Alongside Night" (1979) and "Rainbow Cadenza" (1983).

Roy Childs "was not a big science fiction person either," said Andrea. After he came, LFB tended to follow his interests: philosophy, political theory, economics, and to some extent history. Left anarchism went away, and there wasn't much new being written about individualist anarchism, or explicitly individualist feminism.

Political theory was big. There were the classics, such as Rose Wilder Lane's "The Discovery of Freedom" and Isabel Paterson's "The God of the Machine," and also Nozick's "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" (1974). "It was such a phenomenon," Andrea said of the last work. "After it won a National Book Award, a lot of writers got book contracts on the strength of Nozick's success."

Laissez Faire's long-term bestseller was Henry Hazlitt's short, inexpensive, readable, and conservative-friendly "Economics in One Lesson" (1946). "Year in and year out, we could count on selling approximately 3,500 copies," said Andrea. "That's 52,500 copies in 15 years. We never had more than 30,000 customers, and most of the time not that many. We figured it must have been people giving copies to family and friends."

LFB also carried quite a few academic titles in economics, though not nearly as many as publishers submitted. For some authors the LFB catalogue was a kind of badge. Writes Boettke, author of "Why Perestroika Failed" (1993), "When I decided that I wanted to be an academic economist one of my goals was to have some book of mine carried in LFB. The fact that my first book was on the cover and reviewed so favorably by Roy Childs was a dream come true."

The anchor tenants of the economics pages were Thomas Sowell, who was extraordinarily prolific, the late Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. "Rothbard was gold for us," Andrea said. "Anything by Rothbard."

Ayn Rand, who had had the biggest market of all, died in 1982. But books by and about Rand continued on, as did books in Rand's tradition, such as "The Ominous Parallels" (1983) by her official heir, Leonard Peikoff.

When Roy Childs died, he was replaced by Jim Powell. He didn't write with the sizzle that Childs had, but he wrote clearly and knew his stuff. Laissez Faire was saved. For a few years, business continued to improve.

Among Randians, Peikoff's book "was a very big deal," Andrea said. "He came to Laissez Faire Books, and we had an autograph evening for him. I was told [that] when asked why he agreed to do that, he said, 'This book is very important. I would sign books for Attila the Hun.' Later, he spoke for Jim Blanchard's gold conference in New Orleans and autographed books for us there twice, because we were the official booksellers there. Then the even more rigorous Randians pointed out that we had carried anarchist books. So Leonard broke with us." Rand greatly disliked anarchism. She also disliked what she regarded as "libertarianism," which she associated with irrational forms of radicalism.

About that time, Robert and Beatrice Hessen sold Palo Alto Books, a Rand-oriented mail-order company, to Laissez Faire. Andrea recalled: "The official Randians were shocked and horrified that they were getting things in the mail for a libertarian book service. And they did not write, 'Please remove my name from your mailing list.' 'Please' was never part of it. It was, 'How dare you think you could have my name to send this garbage! You make sure I never get one of these again.' "

The Randians gravitated to their own booksellers, such as the Ayn Rand Institute, set up by Peikoff in 1985, and the Objectivist Center, set up by David Kelley in 1990. Rand's fans, however, remained a big part of LFB's customer base. And that made Barbara Branden's biography, "The Passion of Ayn Rand" (1986) perhaps LFB's biggest event of the 1980s. Since 1968, when Rand excommunicated her chief assistants, Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, rumors had circulated that she had had a sexual relationship with Nathaniel. By 1986, most libertarians had heard this story, but not all of them believed it, and few knew the details. Now there it was in print, told by the woman whose husband was involved.

Barbara Branden spoke at Laissez Faire Books, and more than 300 people showed up. "What a cathartic event that was!" Andrea recalled. LFB sold tapes of the event. And, Andrea said, "We bought 6,000 copies of the book. We sold them, and went back for another 4,000, and another 3,000. Maybe we sold 20,000 all together."

LFB made money by its ability to buy at large discounts. "We would dicker, and make a deal on how much we were willing to pay," Andrea recalls. "Howie taught me to be a pretty good negotiator, and that's the only way we could have existed." Howard also set the rule that LFB would buy only nonreturnable books, because books that couldn't be sold back to the publisher were cheaper.

For books aimed principally at the libertarian market — and LFB was the libertarian market — publishers had to reach a deal with LFB before committing to a press run. Andrea observed, "This happened over and over. It even happened with the big publishers: Random House, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins. In cases where we could not negotiate a deal, we didn't carry the book."

Well, mostly. For years, LFB had good relations with the University of Chicago Press, until new management refused to deal with LFB on a book-club basis. "For a few years we did not carry any of the works of Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek," Andrea said. "On that one I gave in. It was just too embarrassing not to be carrying 'Capitalism and Freedom' and 'The Road to Serfdom.'"

Reprints were crucial in the pre-internet era, when the used-book market was fragmented into tens of thousands of secondhand bookshops. I used to frequent those shops.

By the mid-1980s, New York City had begun to recover from the shabbiness of the '70s, and rents went up. LFB's landlord raised the rent from $900 a month to $3,000; and the bookstore had to widen its market or move. One way was to sell to non-libertarians: "I tried an experiment. I got five copies of the Village Voice and put them out. We were across the street from NYU, and we could not sell five copies in a week."

Another way was to sell to more libertarians, by mail — which didn't require a street-level address. Andrea moved the store into the seventh floor of a building on Broadway that was full of sweatshops. The rent was smaller, the space was bigger, and libertarians still managed to go to the showroom there.

LFB stayed in that place for five years, and when it moved it was for a personnel reason. Andrea Rich is a sparkplug of ideas, a strong leader, but she needed a store manager who could keep track of the details. She found such a person, Anita Anderson, to do the job for three years, but Anderson moved to San Francisco to be near her family. None of the replacements whom Andrea hired was as competent in her view — so in 1989 she asked Anderson if she would run LFB if Andrea moved the operation to the West Coast.

Yes, she would. And so, said Andrea, "Young Neil McCaffrey brought his crew of guys down, packed us up overnight, helped us rent a truck, and we moved everything to California. Retail sales went down, but catalogue sales went up."

The next shock, in 1992, was the death of LFB's master of marketing, Roy Childs. For years he had suffered from his weight; he no longer came into the LFB office to write; he had become apartment-bound. When he died, he weighed 475 pounds. At LFB, Andrea said, "We thought life was over. I was sure it was the end of us when Roy died. A lot of people wanted to do his job, but they didn't have any idea of how to sell a book." Childs was replaced by Jim Powell. He didn't write with the sizzle that Childs had, but he wrote clearly and knew his stuff. Laissez Faire was saved. For a few years, business continued to improve.

In the early 1980s Andrea had reprinted Morris and Linda Tannehill's self-published "The Market for Liberty" (1970) under the Laissez Faire name, so it could have copies to sell. Soon enough, Andrea set up a separate book imprint, Fox & Wilkes, named after the 18th-century English liberals Charles James Fox and John Wilkes. LFB used the Fox & Wilkes brand for years. With Rothbard's "For a New Liberty," it revived a book that Macmillan had printed a few times and dropped. John T. Flynn's "The Roosevelt Myth" (1948) was another revival. Fox & Wilkes' selection was heavy on radical works, such as Franz Oppenheimer's "The State" (1914) and Albert Jay Nock's "Our Enemy, the State" (1935). Another was Walter Block's "Defending the Undefendable" (1976) — a book Sharon Presley had said was indefensible and Roy Childs had defended. Andrea was particularly proud of offering "The Lysander Spooner Reader," which provided works by the 19th-century individualist that were otherwise available only in booklets and pamphlets.

Reprints were crucial in the pre-internet era, when the used-book market was fragmented into tens of thousands of secondhand bookshops. I used to frequent those shops; I remember running across a copy of a first edition of "The State" in a bookstore in Vancouver and agonizing over it, knowing that I might never find it again. Today I see that Abebooks.com offers 71 copies of "The State," from sellers in Canada, Australia, the U.K., Ireland, and the United States, one of them at a lowbrow secondhand store five miles from my house. I see also that the book has been available from at least eight publishers over the past 93 years, including Fox & Wilkes, at prices, including shipping, from $7.66 to $218.80; and that the Bobbs-Merrill edition of 1914, which is the one I found in Vancouver, can be ordered from sellers in Randallstown, Md.; Sylva, N.C.; Bar Harbor, Maine; Austin, Texas; Conway, Mass.; and San Francisco and New York.

Today there is also print-on-demand, and new offerings of short-press-run books such as the Garet Garrett novels, which the Ludwig von Mises Institute has now printed for the first time in 80 years. None of this was available in the early '90s.

The years 1993–1995 were the peak of LFB's business, with annual revenue touching $1.3 million. They were also a political peak of sorts. "The conservatives took over in Washington, and liberty was here," Andrea recalls with a chuckle. But it wasn't just conservatives who seemed to be taking over. On Jan. 20, 1995, two and a half months after the Republicans' historic sweep of Congress, The Wall Street Journal ran a page-one story by Gerald Seib with the headline:

Less is More
Libertarian Impulses
Show Growing Appeal
Among the Disaffected

When Government Fails,
Many Voters Are Asking
Who Needs It, Anyway?

At one point during this time, LFB briefly had a million dollars in the bank.

Then came a new thing — the internet booksellers. "We didn't see it at first," Andrea said. "We were so specialized, and surely Amazon was not going to bother with the kind of books we did." But the very name Amazon indicated an ambition to become an unstoppable river of books, the biggest and widest.

~~~

The San Francisco operation of Laissez Faire Books was on the second floor of a warehouse on the low-class side of Market Street. It was not the best neighborhood. In the early '90s, when LFB was shipping containers of donated books to Eastern Europe, and having to load them in back of the building onto a truck, the LFB people had to go out and clear the place of bums. But LFB was still the world's premier libertarian book service. Such out-of-town authors as Charles Murray and Nathaniel Branden gave talks at its headquarters, and people from all over the world managed to visit the showroom.

Andrea communicated daily from New York and handled the major book buys. "She knew when books were in the works," said Anita Anderson, general manager in San Francisco. Powell wrote the book reviews from Connecticut, and Kathleen Nelson did the layout from Arkansas. Like Andrea, Anderson didn't read most of the books; her book guy was Dave Brooks, who had grown tired of teaching philosophy at a local college and had initially come to LFB for a job in the warehouse.

Anderson said people would telephone with book-related questions she couldn't answer. "I'd call Dave. He'd read all of Mises and Nozick and everybody. He could give them everything they wanted to know, and they'd end up buying the book. You need someone like that."

During the 1990s, LFB's book selection leaned more heavily toward works on public policy. The company's best customers were getting older, and they already owned the classics. Some of the policy books did well, though Anderson said, "Policy books drop quicker. A year later, they're discounted." That meant a greater risk of getting stuck with too many.

Internet buyers tended to be younger. They didn't have the same loyalty as paper-catalogue customers.

There were always books on which LFB bet wrong. One was Michael Paxton's "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life" (1997), the picture book that went with his video documentary. Rand's novels were perennial sellers for LFB, and the company made a big order for "Sense of Life." It was a misjudgment. Said Anderson, "Most of the people who were interested in Rand didn't care about pictures."

More and more of LFB's business was being done by internet. Internet buyers tended to be younger, which was an encouraging thing, but they didn't have the same loyalty as paper-catalogue customers. Many of them requested that their names not be put on a list for snailmail. Selling to them was a one-off business.

By the end of the decade, LFB's business was shrinking, and because it could commit to fewer books, the discounts from publishers were thinner, and some publishers were no longer willing to deal with LFB as a book club. By the end of 2002, LFB was barely in the black. Anderson had left to have a baby and would come back only part-time. Andrea was ready to get out. "Nobody wanted to buy Laissez Faire Books," she said. She gave it to the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education under an agreement that the Foundation could give it back — which, after a year, it did. It had not even bothered to move the business.

"I convinced Andrea to take it back and give me a shot at it," said Kathleen Nelson. Nelson came to San Francisco for a quick lesson in management before moving the business to Little Rock. She had always worked out of her home; this was the first time in her adult life when she worked in an office.

LFB was not in good shape. It had stacks of unsold books. A few of the stacks were more than 1,000 volumes high. Revenues were down by half compared with the early-'90s peak. The mailing list — customers who had bought a book within the previous three years — was down by at least 10,000 from the peak, and the new rented lists were not producing enough names. Moving to Arkansas, however, permitted big cuts in costs. "Rents are a lot cheaper than in San Francisco," Nelson said. "Salaries also." She brought none of the San Francisco people with her, and the head count shrank by more than half.

Nelson is a plainspoken woman with no time to waste. She worked constantly, and found several employees willing to work 12-hour days. She kept Laissez Faire going for three years.

~~~

The struggle of LFB occurs in a changed market. "I think the libertarian market as a distinct market has virtually disappeared," said Jim Powell, who has been writing books since he left LFB: "Wilson's War" (2005) and "Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt's Legacy" (2006). "For a market to exist you have to be able to identify people and reach them."

Who wants to find libertarian readers, as such? "There aren't any libertarian book publishers now," Powell said. There are just publishers. "When an author proposes a book to a commercial publisher they look you up and see how many books you've sold." Once your book is published, Powell added, "you have 60 to 90 days to make something happen sales-wise before the publisher moves on."

There is another, deeper, problem, he said. "The great majority of libertarian authors had their sales peaks more than five years ago, and some of them ten and 20 years ago." The giants are dead: Rand, Mises, Rothbard, Friedman. Sowell's top book was "Vision of the Anointed" (1995). Richard Epstein's was "Takings" (1985). Charles Murray's top libertarian book was "Losing Ground" (1984). (Andrea didn't consider "The Bell Curve" a libertarian book; she carried it but did not reorder it.) P.J. O'Rourke's top book was "Parliament of Whores" (1991), and Paul Johnson's was "Modern Times" (1983). John Stossel is a new author, and a welcome one, but it's not enough.

"What you want is to have a lot of authors with recent peaks," Powell said.

Something to think about. Maybe there's a book in it.

© Copyright 2009, Liberty Foundation


Send editorial comments to letters@libertyunbound.com.
All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.

Send web site comments to webmaster@libertyunbound.com.


Current Issue | Archive | Subscription Services | Liberty Store | Writers' Guide | Editors & Staff | Search | Advertise in Liberty