Spotlight: A Rich, Rich Book of Love
Next time you're in lower Manhattan, do two things. Avoid girls with Tama Janowitz complexes, and mosey down Broadway to say hi to Howie and Andrea Rich, affable proprietors of Laissez Faire Books.
A fitful elevator willing, the visitor steps into a sprawling, comfortable old warehouse, spread across 5,000 square feet on the seventh floor of a funky/fusty highrise in the hipoisie district known as Soho. Amidst the piles of books (1,400 titles), you'll find the Riches, loving every minute in their biblio heaven.
Howie, 47, and Andrea, 48, met in 1972 courtesy of "the power of direct mail," says he. They'd each received notice of a meeting to be held in New York attorney Ed Clark's living room. The agenda: forming a Libertarian political party. They went.
For Howie and Andrea, the road to Ed Clark's den was marked by different signposts. Howie, a plumbing contractor who'd done postgraduate work in finance, came to Clark's with a faith in free markets sparked by Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom and the sterling, now-defunct University of Chicago student publication, New Individualist Review. For Andrea, a TV producer, the path began with the seemingly incongruous campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and Barry Goldwater and the works of novelist Ayn Rand.
It wasn't love at first site, but with the passage of time Howie and Andrea became an item. Alas, 1976 approached, and Andrea faced a pivotal decision. She was working in NBC's election unit. As such, she'd have to spend the next several months camped out in Iowa and New Hampshire listening to Milton Shapp and Sargent Shriver thump tubs and scare children. A sane woman, Andrea quit NBC, stayed in New York, and married Howie.
His several businesses, preeminently plumbing, were validating and revalidating Howie's surname. Meanwhile, Andrea was learning the ropes of the book trade at a shop in the suburbs. (She was also getting a crash course in the joys of motherhood, provided by Howie's two kids.)
Come 1982, the Riches effected a grand confluence of their business and political interests. Howie and Andrea bought the financially troubled Laissez Faire Books and set out to build "the world's largest selection of books on liberty."
By dint of tireless work, a crackerjack staff, and the reblossoming of classical liberal thought in America, Laissez Faire took off. Its mailing list ballooned from 4,500 to 30,000 today. Annual sales now hover around the $1-million mark.
Both Riches lavish praise on their staff of 12, particularly Roy Childs, editor of their quasi-monthly catalogue. Childs's seductive ad copy is legendary—he could impart Tolstoyan virtues to a phone directory ("crammed with fascinating people!"). Says Andrea: "Roy is the consummate creator, and Howie is the consummate businessman."
Scan Laissez Faire's catalogue and you'll discover that a large chunk of its charm is the friendly ecumenicalism. Popular books by free-market conservatives coexist with elusive radical works (Paul Avirch's biography of turn-of-the-century anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre), New Left revisionism (Gabriel Kolko's myth shattering), and just about every line of saintly invective H.L. Mencken ever wrote. "There's nowhere else you can get these books!" exclaims Andrea, and except for the occasional bestseller she's right.
About 97 percent of Laissez Faire's business is by mail, yet the sporadic walk-in traffic is a source of delight. Libertarians and marketophiles vacationing in New York make the pilgrimage to Soho, browsing through the comfortably cluttered aisles, spelunking for that scarce edition (LF's catalogue lists fewer than half the titles in stock).
"People will ask 'How you doing?' and they really mean it," smiles Andrea. Laissez Faire is the town bookstore in the libertarian community; something far stronger than the cash nexus binds the enterprise to its customers. The satisfaction is mutual. Notes Howie, "Every single day of the year someone buys Human Action," economist Ludwig von Mises's opus. "That's exciting for us."
The Riches have the usual outside interests: sleeping, breathing, eating. And Howie is a hockey fan and fundraiser for Republican presidential hopeful Pete du Pont. (Andrea doesn't mind hockey but is no fan of du Pont, a conspicuous source of loving discord.)
But the bookstore is the great nonspousal love of their lives. "I really feel that everything I've done in my life, everything I've learned in my life, has all come together at Laissez Faire," marvels Andrea.
The Riches are nice people having loads of fun with an enterprise and a cause in which they deeply believe. They smile a lot, and they should.
Bill Kauffman still has to pay full price at Laissez Faire.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: A Rich, Rich Book of Love".