One of the most exciting experiences a libertarian can have is this: to see concrete evidence of the growth of the libertarian movement. I had such an experience on March 4 of this year. For on that Saturday, a libertarian bookstore opened in New York City, and I was there.
I had received by mail an announcement heralding the grand opening of the new store, and had decided at once that my attendance at this libertarian happening was a must.
On the day of the happening, as I walked the few blocks from the subway to the store, I pondered the significance of the birth of this bookstore. Libertarianism was growing, finding increasing support among thinking people everywhere. This growth had reached the point where a libertarian bookstore could be opened in a city that has long been one of the world's most competitive marketplaces. A healthy, hopeful sign.
Several very rich hours would elapse before another thought would dawn on me, a thought pertaining to the future of a libertarian bookstore in New York City.
As I walked, I remembered that New York University's downtown campus was nearby. "That ought to be good for business," I said to myself.
I rounded the corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets, and found the establishment I had traveled over seventy-five miles to reach: the Laissez Faire Bookstore.
What does a desert traveler feel upon finding an oasis? That's what I felt upon entering the Laissez Faire Bookstore. For I found myself in the midst of books and pamphlets authored by many of the minds I admire most: Ayn Rand, Branden, Rothbard, Mises, Tuccille, Aristotle—and many, many more. The publications that I usually have to search for among stacks of trash in conventional bookstores—brought together in one place, under one roof, thanks to the vision and daring of one man.
That man, John Muller, was at the back of the store, making preparations to receive the two guests of honor who would soon appear. It had taken him months of hard work to reach this day: months of seeking out the capital, selecting the titles, contacting the vendors, planning the advertising, organizing the record-keeping, unpacking the books, attending to the details, and paying the rent on a store that was leased last fall. I remembered a line from my favorite novel: "Motive power—you can't imagine how important that is. That's the heart of everything."
I introduced myself to the young businessman, and then, along with a dozen other customers, I browsed. There were books, pamphlets, magazines, photographs, posters, buttons—a plethora of libertarian goods. And yet, the shelves were not completely filled. There were still titles to be added. "Still work to be done," I thought, "as in the movement itself."
What a solemn mood to be in! Especially when mirth seemed to characterize most of the people in the store.
Suddenly, my attention turned from the publications to the people.
The girl attending the cash register is Sharon Presley (M.A. in psychology, thesis on the psychological make-up of libertarians). Just helping out? No; Sharon has moved to New York and will work regularly at the bookstore.
The fellow selling donuts to go with the coffee is none other than David Friedman (college-educated in chemistry and physics, and son of Milton).
Everybody seems so jocund; my mood is changing; David Friedman, selling donuts!
I make a vital decision: I decide that the donut supply is getting low. So out I go, to buy some more. When I return to the store, I set the donuts out on the table and tell Dave, "I'm underselling you; I'm giving these away." "That's O.K.," he says; "When yours are all gone, I'll resume selling mine." Whereupon he puts his donuts away and starts stuffing himself on mine!
Customers chat amiably with one another about philosophy, economics, science fiction. I feel so at home among these people. I feel so good. I feel so…so…so young.
Here comes the first guest of honor: Jerry Tuccille. Tuccille himself, chatting with customers, autographing books, reminiscing about the ten years during which he collected rejection slips from publishers (the first 10,000 copies of his latest book are almost used up), and describing the new magazine, Outlook, which he edits.
Dave Friedman and I talk about the ethics of rational self-interest and Ayn Rand's arguments on the question of rights. He and I disagree. And yet, I feel so relaxed. My ideas flow from my mind to my lips so easily. (Why should it be that disagreement so often fosters tension and hostility?)
Chatting with people. Mixing. A very attractive young lady asks me to autograph her copy of my book. People are conversing, exchanging ideas, thinking.
It's been said that social interaction is good and pleasurable if and when those interacting have similar values. But, of course!
Dave is making up little signs for window display. I talk with Emilia Nordtvedt, a charming and intelligent Village libertarian.
What's this? The donut supply is dangerously low. But then, the sotre is quite crowded, and has been for some time.
"Emilia, let's go out and buy some more donuts."
While we walk, the thought occurs to me that New York is a city dotted with landmarks of all kinds. Something clicks in a half-lighted corner of my mind, something pertaining to the future of a libertarian bookstore in New York City, something—Hey! Look at the bright colors in the windows of that shop across the street!
"We're back, everybody, with lots of glazed—"
"Shhh! Ayn Rand is on television."
Sure enough, NBC is featuring an hour-long interview with Ayn Rand, and a television set has been set up in the back of the store. People are watching; three tape recorders dutifully listen and remember.
But, look! Over there is the second guest of honor, Murray Rothbard. I have to meet him.
I move from the gathering by the television set, and soon I am shaking hands with Dr. Rothbard. He discusses the difference (as he sees it) between an objectivist and a Randian; he dissects the games Nixon's economists play; he explains why he won't run for President on the Libertarian Party ticket. (Too bad.)
More chatting. Gary Greenberg of N.Y.L.A.; Walter Block of radio station WBAI's "Libertarian Perspectives" program; Bill Stewart of Outlook, and many others. A whole galaxy of libertarians.
"Let's go out to dinner," suggests Dave to Emilia and me.
Dinner is in a Japanese restaurant.
"Try holding the chopsticks this way, Paul. Then maybe the food will actually get to your mouth."
"Thanks loads, Dave."
Emilia, Dave, and I talk about objectivist ethics and the concept of rights. My mind is as clear as it is unburdened; it's nice to be young. We talk, argue, laugh, and enjoy.
Time to separate. But we'll get together again, soon.
I boarded the train to Poughkeepsie, and looked over the things I had bought at the bookstore. The bookstore. What was it about the bookstore? I had seen so many libertarian superstars at the store. Perhaps—perhaps today had marked only the first of many such gatherings. Perhaps, in years to come, libertarians would gather at the Laissez Faire Bookstore spontaneously and often. That was the future I had glimpsed earlier, and it really excited me. Today, people look at a certain restaurant or tavern and recall how famous writers and artists used to frequent it. Someday—perhaps—they would point to number 208A Mercer Street and say, "That's where Rothbard, Tuccille, and the others who taught us to be free used to gather and talk."
It was a lovely thought, and far from impossible. So I mused on it, and felt glad, and young.
Paul Lepanto is the author of RETURN TO REASON, an introduction to the Objectivist philosophy.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "An Adventure in East Village".