The legend of Moe's Books

(Books Territory): Moe Moskowitz, the co-founder of Moe’s Books in Berkeley, was known for a lot of things: his omnipresent cigars; his appalling dancing (sometimes to Cab Calloway on the store’s turntable); his political activism; and especially the way he held court at the cash register, riffing like Jackie Mason at a Friars Club podium.

The legend of Moe's Books

The more you know about Moskowitz (1921-97), who opened the store in 1959, the Beatnik era, with his wife, Barbara, the more you want to know. He was brusque and a bit of a slob. He drove his sports car like a maniac. One of his former employees has written about his “famous flatulence.”

He was a natural-born agitator. Born in New York City, he realized he missed certain eats while out West. He’s been given credit for bringing real bagels into Berkeley after founding SAWBABA, the Society for the Advancement of Water Bagels in the Bay Area, in 1962.

After he was referred to as a “balding intellectual” in a newspaper article, he founded, in mock outrage, another group: SFDBI — the Society for the Defense of Balding Intellectuals. (Sign me up.) He helped finance albums by Country Joe and the Fish, the Berkeley-based psychedelic band perhaps best known its performance of “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag,” a Vietnam War protest song, at Woodstock.

I could keep going about Moskowitz. If you want to know more, look for a copy of “Radical Bookselling: A Life of Moe Moskowitz,” a short, fond biography by his daughter, Doris Jo Moskowitz. She now runs Moe’s.

Under her watch the store has only gotten better. It remains a landmark, one of America’s very best bookstores and worth an epic detour to visit. It still feels a bit raffish, in the best sense. Moe’s four floors are packed with more than 200,000 new and used books, with copious sections on academic topics like Medieval Studies and philosophy.

New and used books are shelved together (as dream-bookstores always do it), and the store’s rare book room is a sprawling cabinet of wonders. The store it will most resemble, for Easterners, is The Strand in Manhattan.

The San Francisco Chronicle once put it this way: “India has the Taj Mahal. Berkeley has Moe’s.”

Moe’s began its life on as a small shop on Shattuck Avenue. In the 1960s, it moved to its current location on Telegraph Avenue, four blocks from the University of California at Berkeley campus.

It arrived there during the midst of roiling anti-war and other demonstrations. Moe’s sells a remarkable poster, taken in front of the store, of a protester hurling an object while surrounded by tear gas. The Moe’s logo is clearly visible in the background. Moe’s was known as a place where protesters could hide out for a bit if the action got too intense.

Dissent was in Moe’s blood. When he was younger he was among the picketers arrested in 1945 for calling for the release from prison of conscientious objectors. His sandwich board read: “Federal Prisons — American concentration camps.”

He had a flair for the dramatic. In 1952, Judith Malina, the co-founder of the Living Theater, cast Moskowitz in the first American production of “Ubu Roi,” Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play.

“He was not a beautiful man,” Doris Moskowitz wrote about him in her book, “but a beautiful human being.”

Both generations of Moskowitzs have an eye for talent. Novelist Jonathan Lethem worked at Moe’s for several years. Current staffers Owen Hill and Anthony Dean Rizzuto have edited authoritative annotated editions of Raymond Chandler’s work. The store has several shelves filled with books by store alumni.

“Moe’s is a unique store,” Doris Moskowitz told me. “We have employees who in many cases have been with us for a long time. They really care about the place, and we offer them a lot of autonomy. The many decisions we make don’t come from above — there’s a collective spirit.”

The store, the largest in the Bay Area, has 25 employees and is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The Moskowitz family owns the building on Telegraph.

“The biggest thing that changed since Moe died is probably that we’re a little nicer,” Doris Moskowitz told me. “Early on I would get in trouble with the staff for being too upbeat, for saying hello, for asking customers if they wanted a bag. I was told, ‘You don’t have to ask them, they’re adults!’”

Doris Moskowitz sometimes asks herself, she told me, “WWMD?” (What Would Moe Do?) She makes decisions she can imagine him disagreeing with. It’s her store now. “I did have a dream,” she said, “ in which he gave me the fish eye.”

She isn’t sure that Moe’s wild days are entirely behind it. “I’ve heard stories about people bragging about private moments in the store elevator,” she said. “Perhaps these are just rumors. I have no idea, and I’m not sure I want to know.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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