essays

Jun 1, 1979

The Trials and Triumphs of a Libertarian Bookseller

“Running a bookstore for a market as tiny as libertarianism has always been a shaky proposition. Muller and Presley started Laissez-Faire with $1500.”

A BRIEF NOTE ON the May 1st antidraft rallies called by Students for a Libertarian Society:

The timing could not have been better. On the morning of April 30, the House Military Manpower Subcommittee unanimously reported out a bill that would resume registration of 18 year olds. The bill, which will now be considered by the full House Armed Services Committee, requires draft registration starting on January 1, 1981. It would also commission a study on how to register people best, and a feasibility study on drafting people into the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). By a vote of 5-4, the subcommittee defeated another bill which would have actually drafted 200,000 men into the IRR 90 days after its passage. But this was not defeated because the committee members opposed conscription; draft supporters simply thought it was premature. As Cold warrior Marjorie Holt (R-MD) said in the New York Times, “people are just going to say we’re silly.” The bill that was passed allows them to “study the feasibility” of— i.e., orchestrate more support for—a reserve draft while setting up the registration machinery that would make such a draft easy to implement.

As it happens, the entire week of SLS-sparked protest was to be kicked off that same day in Washington, D.C. The rally, held on the Capitol steps at noon, featured disabled Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), pacifist Barry Lynn, Representative James Weaver (D-OR), Representative Don Edwards (D-CA) and SLS’s own Tom Palmer. SLS helped to form a nationwide coalition of anti-war and anti-draft groups called Committee Against Registration and the Draft (CARD), which helped to build the rally. CARD includes nearly 35 organizations, such as ACLU, AFSC, SANE, and the National Taxpayers Union. Over 600 people attended the Washington rally, where a fiery speech by Kovic whipped them up into a determined chant of “Hell No, We Won’t Go!” Comic relief was provided by the “liberal” statist Pete McCloskey (R-CA), who somehow got it into his head that he had been invited to speak. Denied a chance to speak, McCloskey skulked about on the speakers platform telling reporters that SLS had invited him to speak and was now reneging. The ral-liers responded to this patent lie with an impromptu sit-in at McCloskey’s office—and made the CBS morning news.

The next day, nearly 50 such rallies were held on college campuses around the country. Crowd sizes ranged from 50 determined high school students in Nevada County, California (where it rained), to nearly 1,000 at the University of California at Berkeley. Notable demonstrations were held in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Madison, Austin, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. In Boston, coordinator Leda Cosmides brought together students from Harvard, Boston College, MIT, and Brandeis in a downtown demonstration featuring Robert Nozick. In New York, work on the rally brought together what are often feuding sections of the movement, as New York University students, the Free Libertarian Party, the New Jersey LP, Laissez-Faire Books and the Association of Libertarian Feminists all participated. The Los Angeles area saw hefty demonstrations at Occidental College, the University of Southern California and U.C.L.A. On May 5, a major rally was held in downtown Philadelphia, where Don Ernsberger of the Society for Individual Liberty brought together SLS, the Friends Peace Committee, YAF and CCCO. On that same day LR editor Roy Childs and I debated McCloskey at Stanford University. The debate was broadcast live over local radio.

This flurry of SLS-inspired anti-draft activity has earned the respect of several prominent anti-war activists from the sixties. David Harris, the former husband of Joan Baez and a draft resister who went to jail during the Vietnam war, will speak at an upcoming SLS Student Activist Seminar and at the Libertarian Party National Convention in Los Angeles. Ron Kovic, reputedly an anarchist, has praised SLS and has been invited to speak on a panel at the LP National Convention. David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven, spoke at the New York SLS rally and helped promote our antidraft rally in Boston.

Although we didn’t really think about it until it was over, the Mayday demonstrations were unique in the history of the modern libertarian movement: they were the first nationwide events ever called and organized by libertarians.

The trials and triumphs of a libertarian bookseller

If the modern libertarian movement, barely ten years old, has any venerable institutions, then Laissez-Faire Books is surely one of them. Christian Scientists have hundreds of reading rooms; socialist bookstores abound. But Laissez-Faire, at 206 Mercer Street in New York City, is the only true storefront bookstore devoted to libertarian literature presently supported by the movement.

It is difficult to understand the importance of Laissez-Faire without actually visiting the neighborhood in New York where it stands. At the corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets, Laissez-Faire is right in the heart of Greenwich Village, only a step away from Washington Square Park and New York University. A few blocks down the garbage-strewn sidewalks and caked-paint facades of Bleecker Street, one can find the tiny offices of dozens of left-wing group and group-lets, from the Yippies to the War Resisters League. In the midst of all this cultural hubbub and political noise, it warms the heart to find a tenacious libertarian flag flying.

m1

Nearly 1,000 students turned out at the SLS antidraft rally on the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

And it pays off. I remember encountering alternative school activist George Dennison at a conference where I was running a literature table. He expressed interest, and said he had been introduced to libertarianism at the Laissez-Faire bookstore in New York.

Laissez-Faire opened in early March of 1972 after six months of preparation by John Muller, the proprietor, and his former partner Sharon Presley. The first day was also the best day for over-the-counter sales the store has ever had; the group did a lot of promotion and the novelty of a libertarian bookstore attracted attention. Appropriately enough, the very first person to purchase a book there—a transaction that took place while John was still nailing together the counter— became a regular customer. Muller still recognizes the man because he “probably has showed up here more times than anyone else.”

Laissez-Faire’s selection of libertarian literature is broad and eclectic. It ranges from John Hospers to the anarcho-communist Open Road. Petr Beckmann’s pro-nuclear Access to Energysits alongside material from the anti-nuclear Shad Alliance. Muller is particularly proud of his selection of anarchist literature, much of which is rare and hard to find, including European anarchist journals.

Generally, Laissez-Faire has been well received by the surrounding community. “The anarchist section makes it hard for leftists to be against us,” notes Muller. However, European anarchists who visit—usually unaware of the individualist strain of anarchist thought—“have their minds blown” by the presence of capitalist literature. Of course, in Europe, “libertarian”means anarcho-communist, while “capitalism” connotes not the free market, but mercantilism and fascism.

Ironically, Muller believes that the worst reception of all has come from Objec-tivists. Whenever Muller is asked in an accusatory tone, “Why do you carry this book? ” he knows that it is another Objectivist, objecting to subversive literature from the mystic/altruist/ collectivist axis. One customer who discovered Ayn Rand at Laissez-Faire itself, became an Objectivist and suddenly refused to patronize the store because it was (gasp) “anarchist.”

A BRIEF NOTE ON the May 1st antidraft rallies called by Students for a Libertarian Society:

The timing could not have been better. On the morning of April 30, the House Military Manpower Subcommittee unanimously reported out a bill that would resume registration of 18 year olds. The bill, which will now be considered by the full House Armed Services Committee, requires draft registration starting on January 1, 1981. It would also commission a study on how to register people best, and a feasibility study on drafting people into the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). By a vote of 5-4, the subcommittee defeated another bill which would have actually drafted 200,000 men into the IRR 90 days after its passage. But this was not defeated because the committee members opposed conscription; draft supporters simply thought it was premature. As Cold warrior Marjorie Holt (R-MD) said in the New York Times, “people are just going to say we’re silly.” The bill that was passed allows them to “study the feasibility” of— i.e., orchestrate more support for—a reserve draft while setting up the registration machinery that would make such a draft easy to implement.

As it happens, the entire week of SLS-sparked protest was to be kicked off that same day in Washington, D.C. The rally, held on the Capitol steps at noon, featured disabled Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), pacifist Barry Lynn, Representative James Weaver (D-OR), Representative Don Edwards (D-CA) and SLS’s own Tom Palmer. SLS helped to form a nationwide coalition of anti-war and anti-draft groups called Committee Against Registration and the Draft (CARD), which helped to build the rally. CARD includes nearly 35 organizations, such as ACLU, AFSC, SANE, and the National Taxpayers Union. Over 600 people attended the Washington rally, where a fiery speech by Kovic whipped them up into a determined chant of “Hell No, We Won’t Go!” Comic relief was provided by the “liberal” statist Pete McCloskey (R-CA), who somehow got it into his head that he had been invited to speak. Denied a chance to speak, McCloskey skulked about on the speakers platform telling reporters that SLS had invited him to speak and was now reneging. The ral-liers responded to this patent lie with an impromptu sit-in at McCloskey’s office—and made the CBS morning news.

The next day, nearly 50 such rallies were held on college campuses around the country. Crowd sizes ranged from 50 determined high school students in Nevada County, California (where it rained), to nearly 1,000 at the University of California at Berkeley. Notable demonstrations were held in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Madison, Austin, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. In Boston, coordinator Leda Cosmides brought together students from Harvard, Boston College, MIT, and Brandeis in a downtown demonstration featuring Robert Nozick. In New York, work on the rally brought together what are often feuding sections of the movement, as New York University students, the Free Libertarian Party, the New Jersey LP, Laissez-Faire Books and the Association of Libertarian Feminists all participated. The Los Angeles area saw hefty demonstrations at Occidental College, the University of Southern California and U.C.L.A. On May 5, a major rally was held in downtown Philadelphia, where Don Ernsberger of the Society for Individual Liberty brought together SLS, the Friends Peace Committee, YAF and CCCO. On that same day LR editor Roy Childs and I debated McCloskey at Stanford University. The debate was broadcast live over local radio.

This flurry of SLS-inspired anti-draft activity has earned the respect of several prominent anti-war activists from the sixties. David Harris, the former husband of Joan Baez and a draft resister who went to jail during the Vietnam war, will speak at an upcoming SLS Student Activist Seminar and at the Libertarian Party National Convention in Los Angeles. Ron Kovic, reputedly an anarchist, has praised SLS and has been invited to speak on a panel at the LP National Convention. David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven, spoke at the New York SLS rally and helped promote our antidraft rally in Boston.

Although we didn’t really think about it until it was over, the Mayday demonstrations were unique in the history of the modern libertarian movement: they were the first nationwide events ever called and organized by libertarians.

The trials and triumphs of a libertarian bookseller

If the modern libertarian movement, barely ten years old, has any venerable institutions, then Laissez-Faire Books is surely one of them. Christian Scientists have hundreds of reading rooms; socialist bookstores abound. But Laissez-Faire, at 206 Mercer Street in New York City, is the only true storefront bookstore devoted to libertarian literature presently supported by the movement.

It is difficult to understand the importance of Laissez-Faire without actually visiting the neighborhood in New York where it stands. At the corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets, Laissez-Faire is right in the heart of Greenwich Village, only a step away from Washington Square Park and New York University. A few blocks down the garbage-strewn sidewalks and caked-paint facades of Bleecker Street, one can find the tiny offices of dozens of left-wing group and group-lets, from the Yippies to the War Resisters League. In the midst of all this cultural hubbub and political noise, it warms the heart to find a tenacious libertarian flag flying.

m1

Nearly 1,000 students turned out at the SLS antidraft rally on the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

And it pays off. I remember encountering alternative school activist George Dennison at a conference where I was running a literature table. He expressed interest, and said he had been introduced to libertarianism at the Laissez-Faire bookstore in New York.

Laissez-Faire opened in early March of 1972 after six months of preparation by John Muller, the proprietor, and his former partner Sharon Presley. The first day was also the best day for over-the-counter sales the store has ever had; the group did a lot of promotion and the novelty of a libertarian bookstore attracted attention. Appropriately enough, the very first person to purchase a book there—a transaction that took place while John was still nailing together the counter— became a regular customer. Muller still recognizes the man because he “probably has showed up here more times than anyone else.”

Laissez-Faire’s selection of libertarian literature is broad and eclectic. It ranges from John Hospers to the anarcho-communist Open Road. Petr Beckmann’s pro-nuclear Access to Energysits alongside material from the anti-nuclear Shad Alliance. Muller is particularly proud of his selection of anarchist literature, much of which is rare and hard to find, including European anarchist journals.

Generally, Laissez-Faire has been well received by the surrounding community. “The anarchist section makes it hard for leftists to be against us,” notes Muller. However, European anarchists who visit—usually unaware of the individualist strain of anarchist thought—“have their minds blown” by the presence of capitalist literature. Of course, in Europe, “libertarian”means anarcho-communist, while “capitalism” connotes not the free market, but mercantilism and fascism.

Ironically, Muller believes that the worst reception of all has come from Objec-tivists. Whenever Muller is asked in an accusatory tone, “Why do you carry this book? ” he knows that it is another Objectivist, objecting to subversive literature from the mystic/altruist/ collectivist axis. One customer who discovered Ayn Rand at Laissez-Faire itself, became an Objectivist and suddenly refused to patronize the store because it was (gasp) “anarchist.”

Running a bookstore for a market as tiny as libertarianism has always been a shaky proposition. Muller and Presley started Laissez-Faire with $1500. For a while, Muller supported the store by working at another job. The market, of course, has its peaks and valleys. The 1976 MacBride campaign led to increased interest in libertarian books. That and some heavy advertising in the early part of 1977 led to a few months of actual profit for the store. Business then fell off, only to be revived by the new Cato Institute series in Austrian economics, which is handled through Laissez-Faire.

Muller sums up his seven-year experience as one of being “constantly on the ropes.” But the growth of the libertarian movement makes him very optimistic about the future. Excited by the prospect of the 1980 Presidential elections, the growth of the student libertarian movement, and the Cato book program, Muller has made a decision to “stop working half-assed” and pursue an aggressive program of expansion. He plans to acquire some capital, hire more help, and begin some systematic advertising and promotional activities. Laissez-Faire Books, he reminds me, is “the only truly free market institution in the movement.”

 For a while, Muller supported the store by working at another job. The market, of course, has its peaks and valleys. The 1976 MacBride campaign led to increased interest in libertarian books. That and some heavy advertising in the early part of 1977 led to a few months of actual profit for the store. Business then fell off, only to be revived by the new Cato Institute series in Austrian economics, which is handled through Laissez-Faire.

Muller sums up his seven-year experience as one of being “constantly on the ropes.” But the growth of the libertarian movement makes him very optimistic about the future. Excited by the prospect of the 1980 Presidential elections, the growth of the student libertarian movement, and the Cato book program, Muller has made a decision to “stop working half-assed” and pursue an aggressive program of expansion. He plans to acquire some capital, hire more help, and begin some systematic advertising and promotional activities. Laissez-Faire Books, he reminds me, is “the only truly free market institution in the movement.”