Moe's Loses Popular Founder

Staff and competitors fondly remember Moskowitz

A black-and-white photograph of Moe Moskowitz smoking a cigar adorns the storefront of Moe's Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue -- a remembrance of the man who made his shop a benchmark of secondhand bookstores.

Moskowitz, who died Monday night from congestive heart failure, opened the bookstore at its current location in 1959, later expanding it to hold four levels of new and used books, ample stools to lounge upon and aisles of classics and mythology in which patrons could lose themselves.

Far from being an impersonal proprietor of the successful establishment, Moskowitz was a constant fixture at Moe's, greeting customers and racking up sales behind the front counter until the night he died.

Employees and friends described the bookstore owner as a man who did what he wanted.

arc-moe-06.jpg
photo by Richard Gordon at Moe's 70th birthday

"He was a lovable fellow but absolutely contentious," said manager John McBride. "He always wanted to make a point -- he had plenty of things to tell us."

Claiming the spotlight behind the cash register on the first floor, the native from Queens, New York -- who finally moved to the Bay Area to pursue a theatrical career -- was known to entertain employees and customers and belt out tunes at his whim.

"During the day, he was often known to break into song," said manager of rare books John Wong, who often purchased the cigars that Moskowitz loved. "It was all in jest, but he might have done it to annoy his customers. He really hammed it up."

"As a boss, he was great," Wong added. "He hated to fire anyone even though he knew they'd have to be let go."

The bookstore owner and cigar aficionado freely opened the store's bathrooms to those on the street and was known to send employees to plunge the facilities rather than denying anyone restroom privileges.

"He's almost too generous and kindly for this business," said Wong. "He's done well for himself. He has a great resolve and great willpower."

Besides his love for books -- and author Francois Rabelais in particular -- Moskowitz was a violinist, a pocket billiards junkie and a political activist.

During the turbulent 1960s, when protesters demonstrated in support of People's Park, rioters storming shop on the avenue bypassed Moe's

"Everyone knew of his anarchist tendencies," said Wong. "He was perceived as sympathetic and was always open to anyone's viewpoint."

IN the 1970s, when the city passed a law banning smoking in stores, Moskowitz continued to light up and often caused small blazes at Moe's when he extinguished his cigars in the trash cans. Eventually, so as not to vex customers, Moskowitz resorted to chewing on unlit cigars..

"He just liked the taste of them," said McBride.

Gay Falk, a buyer for Cody's Book down the street, remembered the owner as "a character with a cigar in his mouth," who was also "a very savvy book buyer and seller."

Rather than being rivals, she said that Telegraph Avenue booksellers -- including Moe's, Shambhala, Shakespeare and Co. and Cody's -- complemented one another and drew business to the strip.

"Cody's and Moe's are both better stores because of each other," said Falk. "It was a complete synergy If we didn't have a book, we'd always tell people, 'Check Moe's before you go anywhere else.'"

In memory of Moskowitz, Cody's set up a memorial comprised of articles, photographs and flowers in its front window. Similar displays grace fellow booksellers on the avenue.

In the late 1950s, Moskowitz opened up his first secondhand bookstore in North Berkeley, after attempts to pursue a theatrical career were thwarted. In 1959, he relocated to Telegraph Avenue, Moe's, described by McBride as "the best secondhand bookstore west of the Hudson -- and probably east too -- opened up three years later as its present location.

Moskowitz's distaste for shops that bought books for a quarter and then marked prices up to a dollar prompted his mission to open up a bookstore that offered fair prices and a wide selection of publications to the community. At Moe's, the cash price for trade-ins is 30 percent of the book's cover price or 50 percent of the publication's value in merchandise.

Wife Renee and daughters Doris and Katy survive Moskowitz. A memorial service and public commemoration are being planned, but dates have not been set.

-- By Cathy Chu, The Daily Californian, April 3, 1997