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A Tribute to Moe

Since he left us, Moe has been frequently described as a lover of antiquarian books, always by well-meaning individuals richly misperceiving him. Moe Moskowitz not only never loved antiquarian books, he didn't know or care much about them at all, apart from decades of unrelenting attempts to persuade customers to buy used (rather than new) books. That some people would actually pay more for books with perfect dustwrappers, or books signed by their authors -- valuable virtues in antiquarian circles -- was to Moe wondrously comical.

The founder and garrulous proprietor of Moe's Books, since we're telling some truths here, didn't really much love any books, but he occasionally read, and he had always a potent respect for thought itself, including thought conveyed by books.

Moe is also frequently depicted as a character, an eccentric, an oddity, which he was, but this is skimpy distinction in Berkeley. Did he like the distinction? Yeah. He liked the disguise of it.

All those years of his cigar posturing, the decades of his rushing away from approaching conversationalists to begin frantically shelving used pocketbooks, the infinite afternoons of his happily tormenting clerks working beside him at the front counter with that oddly humorless shtick at the cash register- these habits only served to disguise the character, the authentically rare inner character that was Moe's. This was a master of self-effacement.

He was a prosperous business owner first and foremost, and (despite a certain abiding disbelief) proud of it. He was a prosperous business owner who didn't eat at expensive restaurants, own a boat, take long vacations own two cars, invest in the stock market, play golf or tennis, or collect things. He wasn't on the Local Civic Board of Important People. He wasn't Maurice Moskowitz. He was Moe. He didn't wear the clothes of the Fortune 500. It's uncertain whose clothes he did wear.

It's certain he believed strongly in simple, firm principles of fairness. Throughout his dealings with customers and fellow workers he sustained those principles. Even when the success seemed solid, the biz grown, the bills paid, he didn't believe he was better than others- except for a confused brief stretch he spent playing pool.

The man began his used bookstore at a time when used bookstores across the country had a fiscal policy of paying the minimum for their books, pricing them the maximum, exactly the kind of transparent cunning that was metastatizing about then throughout major corporations. Moe wasn't greedy; he had an audible contempt for those who were.

Early on he put his buying and trading policy on the wall in big words and big numbers. This was new. It set a high value on used books. It conferred value on the contents, rather than the virginal state, of those books. Other used bookdealers had to contend with this. It changed the landscape for booklovers. The fact is, Moe's healthy impact on the used book trade, while widely unmentioned, is comparable to Alice Water's heralded impact on the restaurant industry.

Moe had a 60's heart. Decades before multicultural hiring commenced in its present politically correct fashion, Moe was hiring lots of individuals from varying cultures, simply because he liked them- or because he didn't like them, yet wanted to be fair, needed to be fair, by permitting them to prove there was a valid intuitive reason for his not liking them. It got complicated. How could he tell, he'd wonder aloud, if his not liking them was important to the store? How could he be certain, since he didn't like them, he was assessing them fairly?

Believing all managing to be odious micro-managing, Moe for the most part let employees find their own way. That they did- in the process building this community institution, this vast recycling center, one of the genuinely great bookstores in the world- was Moe's particular genius.

Prosperous businessmen often have delusions of authority. Not Moe. Authority always disturbed him. In the early days, when the Vietnam War was intolerable to thousands of active Berkeleyans and the National Guard was occupying the town, the police often tried to compel Moe to close his bookstore -- the only open business along the first five blocks of Telegraph Avenue- at night, to discourage civil disobedience. They demanded total curfew.

He refused. The store provided sanctuary for citizens. It provided a `legal' reason for protestors to be on their own streets. Police cars would back up to the front door, aim those auxiliary teargas tanks under the car to spray through the crack beneath the door, and fill the store with gas. We stayed open seven nights a week until eleven pm. Moe would call in and we would tell him, coughing, eyes streaming, that they were doing it again.

"Be right down," he'd say. And soon be with us.

Letters came from patriots. "Moe, you commie-loving creep, keep it up and we'll blast you and all your bookesh faggy elk."

He put a big sign in the window beside the letter: "Do what you will, I'm powerless to stop you, but for Christ's sake... spare the elk."

Bob Baldock
Moe's Books 1963-1982

Bob Baldock was one of the founders of Black Oak Books. He currently works at KPFA.