My Path to Laissez Faire Books and Voluntaryism

By Andrea Rich

My teachers in grade school and high school thought I had a “strange outlook on life,” but neither they nor I knew what that meant. I read The Fountainhead in college while suffering with flu and a high fever. I still had the flu but immediately stopped suffering.

I left college and came to New York City to launch my career at CBS, and soon connected with the Objectivist movement (which was just getting underway). I took as many classes as they offered at that time. It might seem a peculiar next step, but I went to live on a kibbutz in Israel for 6 months for the adventure of it, then moved back to NYC where I was a devoted “Student of Objectivism” until The Break-Up between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden in 1968. It was devastating to me. Then I discovered that one didn’t have to be a “Student of O” in order to believe in liberty (of course, one had to believe in government – what else was there?). I got chummy with Lanny Friedlander, that broken genius who started Reason and challenged many of my conventional ideas, as well as Jerry Tuccille, Gary Greenberg, and several other seekers.

I helped start the Libertarian Party of New York (the Free Libertarian Party, that is) and there met Murray Rothbard who became my best friend (I wasn’t his best friend of course but we did see each other 3-4 times a week). The FLP soon became too conventional for Murray and he joined the Maoist wing of the Peace and Freedom Party. Needless to say, he radicalized me (not to the extent of joining P&F) and I haven’t gone back to the dark side since. My 23 years with Laissez Faire Books helped me put some knowledge behind my firm convictions.

Laissez Faire Books was started in NYC the Fall of 1971, in a tiny shop on Mercer Street in Greenwich Village. John Muller and Sharon Presley founded it and set it up as a gathering place, as well as a bookstore. They featured most all the known libertarian works, as well as a lot of science fiction, which Sharon considered universally libertarian anyhow. They also had film nights (I remember they screened the entire TV series, The Prisoner, and got a great response). They sponsored a couple of lecture series as well but most successfully, they ran receptions/autograph sessions to celebrate new works like Murray Rothbard’s For A New Liberty and Jerome Tuccille’s It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand. And then in 1974 Robert Nozick’sAnarchy, State, and Utopia appeared, which changed the whole ballgame for libertarian scholarship. It even won the National Book Award and inspired many other liberty-oriented scholars to write books as well.

Sharon earned her PhD and moved to California; John kept LFB going fitfully but it was very under-funded so he sold my husband, Howie, and me the assets on my birthday, February 8, 1982. It was the best birthday present I ever got. Howie and I plowed a lot of money into it and we were pleased to consider LFB a big success, even after we turned it into a non-profit educational organization. We were lucky that this was such an important couple of decades for philosophical and economic books on liberty. Mail-order sales soon greatly outstripped drop-in trade and we moved our operation to San Francisco, under the management of our good friend Anita Anderson. In 1994, appeared and we didn’t think much of it at the time, but by 2005 it was obvious that the world (or at least the U.S.) no longer needed a libertarian book service. All our books were available through the biggest online booksellers in the world. When Howie bought a copy of Friedman’sCapitalism and Freedom as part of an order, I realized the time had come to put LFB to rest. Kathleen Wikstrom, who’d worked with me from Arkansas for most of those 23 years, refused to acknowledge the sensibility of closing LFB and took it over for a year-and-a-half. Since then, it’s been in the hands of a couple of other libertarian entities.

I’ve been married to Howie for more than three decades. He is a great guy whose biggest failing is his interest in various branches of politics (Term Limits, School Choice, etc). At this point I have to say I have zero interest in politics, as defined by the structure of The State. Now I run the Center for Independent Thought, an educational non-profit foundation. Our projects include “Stossel in the Classroom,” which distributes free videos selected from John Stossel’s TV shows to high school classrooms around the country. We also sponsor the annual Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties.

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