Carrying on a Tradition

Like so many literary towers of Pisa, piles of books teeter around the register at Moe's Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue.

"We move a lot of books here," said employee Robert Eliason. "A thousand a day, maybe?"

Their total number of books?

"350,000? 400,000? Who knows," he said. "The entire inventory turns over every nine months."

For many Berkeley newcomers, Moe's four-story emporium is simply the best place th find high quality used books in the East Bay. But for others, Moe's is far more than a bookstore: it is the living memory of Morris "Moe" Moskowitz, legendary bookseller, pool player, cigar smoker and crowd pleaser extraordinaire.

Approaching the five-year anniversary of his death at the age of 75 on April 1, 1997, his memory, like is beloved bookstore, is still very much alive and well.

"He trusted people and knew how to work to their strengths," said 22-year Moe's employee Laura Tibbals. "Plus he worked hard. He plunged the toilet."

He also revolutionized the way used books were sold.

Before Moe's, used books sellers paid just pennies for books and then jacked up the prices considerably. "Consequently, they didn't have very good books," said poet and long-time Moe's employee Owen Hill.

Moskowitz changed all that in the early '60s by offering 50 percent of a books's cover price for a customer wanting payment in trade, and 30 percent for cash. Almost immediately, Hill says, the books started flowing and Moe's took off.

Customers who take their payments in trade still receive green "Moe Dollars," featuring a top-hatted, cigar smoking caricature of Moskowitz and the words: "In God and Moe we Trust."

An old communist from New York, Moskowitz's business practices -- good wages and benefits (including a four-day work week and pension plan), fair prices, both in buying and selling of books, and an unflappable preoccupation for doing right by his workers and customers -- nurtured staff and customer loyalty.

If a customer showed up at the register with a new books, and Moskowitz knew the store had a used copy for much cheaper, he'd tell them where it was, or even go get it for them. Policies like that earned the loyalty of customers like Dave Brewer, a retired sociology professor from Fresno who's been coming to Moe's since 1964.

And though Moskowitz died nearly five years ago, you wouldn't know it from the change in staff -- most of the 25 to 30 staff members on board now were hired under his watch. Half have been there longer than 10 years, and several longer than 20.

"A Lot of people will work here until the day they die," said Tibbals.

"Moe was a real communist with a sense of fairness," said Ken Eastman, who has worked in Moe's fine book section for the past eight years. "If you weren't messing up, you were employed for life."

On Moskowitz's death, ownership passed on to his daughter and ex-wife, Barbara. The former Mrs. Moskowitz, who recently passed away, was also known for her generosity.

Not much, customers and staff said, has changed at Moe's "We were all worried it would all go down hill, but it's as well stocked as ever," said Tibbals.

What the staff misses terribly, of course, is Moskowitz.

"He made working seem like a party," said Hill.

The stocky, balding Moskowitz was known for his sense of humor and outrageous antics like singing along to his favorite Pakistani music or lighting up his cigar in flagrant violation of Berkeley's no-smoking ordinance. A customer not in the know would flash him a dirty look to which he'd respond with a rendition of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and eventually, the police would show up. "It was great theater," said Hill.

When Moskowitz died of Heart failure on April Fool's Day 1997, "a lot of people didn't believe it," said Don Frew, employee of the Shambala Buddhist bookstore next to Moe's "They thought it was a joke."

As the news sank in, it was met by a spontaneous outpouring of grief. Frew watched from the Shambala window as flowers and offerings sprang up in front of the bookstore.

"I heard this low, grumbling sound, looking out, and saw naked bodies wailing and throwing themselves against the windows."

They were members of the Berkeley Naked Art Players, performing an elaborate mourning dance to the gurgling drones of a didgeridoo.

"I don't think the staff or family appreciated it much," but, Frew added, it was emblematic of how deeply people cared about the cantankerous old bookseller.

Mayor Shirley Dean went on to officially decree April 20, 1997 and "Moe's Day" in Berkeley, "the city that he loved and that in turn loved him." His friends, family, staff and customers held a memorial on Telegraph Avenue, closing off the street in his honor.

-- Claudine LoMonaco, The Berkeley Daily Planet, March 28, 2002