Libertarian History/Philosophy

Laissez Faire Books, R.I.P.

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A great libertarian institution is on its way out this month (though they have not yet officially announced it on their web site): Laissez Faire Books, the libertarian book store turned libertarian book mail order operation.

Wikipedia gives a good history of the operation. It opened as a store front in 1972 in Greenwich Village, run by John Muller and Sharon Presley. Murray Rothbard and Jerome Tuccille signed their books at the grand opening.

As I wrote in my history of the modern American libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism:

The store became an inmportant social center for the movement in America's biggest city, a place for any traveling libertarian to stop for company and succor and to find congenial drinking companions, and a source of aggravation for European anarchists who heard tales of New York City's anarchist bookstore and found its political economy section infested with right deviationists such as Murray Rothbard; a place for signings and parties when significant new libertarian books were issued…and showings of The Prisoner and other libertarian entertainments.

In 1982 Andrea Rich took it over, and shifted it to a mail-order only operation. Kathleen Nelson (sister of libertarian activist Paul Jacob) has been in charge since 2005.

The catalog has for decades been the best way to keep up on the thankfully ever-growing flood of books of interest to libertarians. While in an Amazon and abebooks age, the need for one special place to go to to obtain sometimes obscure books may be smaller, LFB and its catalog editors' ability (special hat tip to libertarian legend Roy Childs, who edited the catalog in the late '80s and early '90s and read and understood more libertariana than any random 20 ordinary libertarians) find and compile in one place and intelligently review and contextualize,books for the libertarian community will be sorely missed.

NEXT: The Song Remains the Same

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  1. While in an Amazon and abebooks age, the need for one special place to go to to obtain sometimes obscure books may be smaller, LFB and its catalog editors’ ability (special hat tip to libertarian legend Roy Childs, who edited the catalog in the late ’80s and early ’90s and read and understood more libertariana than any random 20 ordinary libertarians) find and compile in one place and intelligently review and contextualize,books for the libertarian community will be sorely missed.

    But apparently, not missed by many. Amazon beat them in an open marketplace. What could be more libertarian? LFB may be gone, but there is still no shortage of places to get libertarian literature, reviews and recommendations. Why, the Reason blog might even be a good place to start.

  2. We use LFB in our book price comparisons, and they publish a feed of their prices. So at least there is a decent record of the ISBNs that they stocked, or a large part of them.

    If anyone wants the list of ISBNs (I don’t think LFB will mind?) I can make it available via email, just use any feedback form on our website at http://www.directtextbook.com

    Thanks, LFB.

  3. But apparently, not missed by many. Amazon beat them in an open marketplace.

    Any word on why they’re closing their doors just yet?

  4. That’s too bad. I remember ordering every single Ayn Rand book in one big order from them and *oof* reading them over a summer. Prior to that I had no idea who the woman was. I’ve moved on intellectually since, but I’m grateful to them for exposing me to her.

  5. Goddam big business book sellers running out these small mom and pop laissez faire book stores! The government should do something about this!

  6. It would be funny if the former owners of LFB had to apply for public assistance now that they’re unemployed.

  7. Aside from the emergence of Amazon.com and other booksellers who offered nearly everything LFB did and at lower prices, another factor in its decline had to be the death of Roy Childs. You could get a lot out of the catalog just from reading his reviews. Naturally, he’d get you so excited about some new book that you’d wind up ordering it and a couple of others to boot. After he died, no one person could do what he did.

    I wonder, too, whether today’s young libertarians no longer require the book-length introductions that were necessary for earlier generations. Libertarian ideas are so prevalent today on the Internet that perhaps the Hayek/Hazlitt/Rand/Friedman/Rothbard canon seems superfluous. Any thoughts on this from libertarians under, say, 25?

  8. The Internet killed Loompanics too, more or less.

    I spent many hours at the LFB Bleecker St. store, and even a few at its CIT location.

    The Libertarian Book Club, however, which predated LFB by decades, keeps going. I haven’t been to one of their anarchist forums in a while, though.

  9. It would be funny if Dan T’s computer wedged and he had to go get a real job.

  10. I wonder, too, whether today’s young libertarians no longer require the book-length introductions that were necessary for earlier generations. Libertarian ideas are so prevalent today on the Internet that perhaps the Hayek/Hazlitt/Rand/Friedman/Rothbard canon seems superfluous.

    Well, since I suspect that a majority of folks under 25 calling themselves “libertarians” are just typical young Blues and Reds who happen to think prostitution, porn, and/or pot should be legal, I think there might still be a role.

  11. This is a tragic loss for the Libertarian Movement.

    I met John Muller at a libertarian conference at Columbia University in 1971, when I was working for SIL. He was passing out flyers for a bookstore that he was about to open, and I worked for him on several occassions.

    Over the years I have traded books with Laissez Faire Books, as they brought a number of libertarian classics back into print.

    I continue to sell libertarian books at Renaissance Bookshop and online @ http://www.renbook.com

  12. I missed this post. It’s tragic I suppose, but while I pursued their catalog often, I always bought from Amazon. They served us well in their time. They fed us now and we are stronger than ever.

  13. Kevin: I’m under 25 (I’ll be 24 in late Nov.). I became libertarian thanks to my Econ. professor in college (George Mason’s Prof. Rustici; great guy). Prior to that, I was a liberal. Harry Browne’s books are also good.

  14. LFB may be sadly gone, but at least Renaissance Bookshop in Riverside, California still exists. To my knowledge, it’s the ONLY storefront libertarian bookstore in existence within the USA.

    http://www.renbook.com

  15. “[M]ail-order only” in 1982? I remember browsing in their New York City store in person in 1987.

    Still, I am sure that postage costs contributed as well as competition from amazon, as LFB always produced a stellar print catalog.

  16. This is a real shame. I always enjoyed receiving a new LFB catalog and it was fun to buy from an outlet that was a piece of libertarian history. I suspected they might be in trouble, as they recently discontinued their Page Points program, which encouraged you to save money by reading ever more pages of libertarian literature.

    I’m not under 25, but for the record I am 26, and a very big fan of LFB and “the Hayek/Hazlitt/Rand/Friedman/Rothbard canon”. A new generation of libertarians is around, but I don’t think the ignorance of the movement’s history and major figures is as deep as you fear. I also suspect that Brian’s book (which I’ve been meaning to order from LFB for some time now) is doing a lot to ensure that the institutions like LFB — and the colorful personalities that surrounded it — will not soon be forgotten.

  17. The present form of Laissez Faire Books may be down for the count but it may be premature to carve its epitaph yet. Laissez Faire was more than a mere bookseller, more even than a book reviewer. It was and is an institution in the libertarian movement. The current movement would not be where it is without the early years of Laissez Faire Books and its years with Roy Childs, purveying books that no one else carried, long before there was an amazon.com.

    There are those of us who do not think it has quite lived out its life cycle. It may yet emerge in a new form, with new purpose.

    Sharon Presley
    Co-founder and former co-proprietor of
    Laissez Faire Books, 1972-1977

  18. Shame, shame, on anyone who browsed the LFB catalog and then bought from Amazon. How do you think they keep that web site up? If you have any loyalty to the libertarian movement, you would have purchased your books from LFB (even if they cost more).

    It was through LFB that I discovered Grace Llewellyn all the way back in 1992. I initially learned of LFB when I got a copy of Lynn Johnston’s classic tax-protest book, _Who’s Afraid of the IRS?_

  19. “In 1982 Andrea Rich took it over, and shifted it to a mail-order only operation.”

    Andrea continued to run the bookstore in New York for another seven years or so, before moving it to San Francisco for another fifteen or so years. Even in San Francisco, where the store operated out of an office building (a converted warehouse South of Market), it had a “retail showroom,” where local or visiting readers could – and did – come to buy books in person. During Andrea’s tenure, LFB was never a “mail-order only operation.”

    JR

  20. Chris Baker, Hooray for your comment about buying from Amazon. Do those people think those reviews on LFB were FREE, that they didn’t cost money to produce and put on the web site? It’s getting something for nothing…

    As to LFB, being “mail order only,” Jeff R is entirely correct, I went to many fine programs sponsored by LFB at that very location in SF, with speakers that included Nathaniel Branden, Joan Kennedy Taylor and others. As I said before, LFB was and is far than just a bookseller, though selling obscure libertarian, anarchist and free market books during the 70s and even beyond was not a trivial thing.

  21. This is a sad day indeed. I visited their store when it was still there in Greenwitch village and actually knew Sharon Presley before it was founded, so this has special resonance for me, to say the least.

  22. I, too, will miss LFB, having purchased many, many books there over the years (several of which I actually read) and remembering fondly Roy’s old reviews. But Andrea is a shrewd businesswoman, and I’m sure her decision is based on a careful assessment of the current market for ordering/procuring books. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if she long ago bought stock in Amazon, in which case she’d have done quite well. 🙂

  23. Just for the record, Andrea is no longer involved on LFB. it was Kathleen’s decision.

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