Moe, as in Moe's Books

Thirty-seven merchants from Telegraph Avenue were crowded into John's Soup Kitchen one Wednesday night. There was no soup, just talk about their common problems. Sometimes calm, sometimes emotional, the cafe owners and shopkeepers told about their business being ripped off, addicts shooting up in the restrooms, themselves being beaten up and trashings. Plywood has replaced John's windows as it had all but one shop along The Avenue after last spring's Haiphong demonstrations.

The owner of that one shop sat at a table near the door, smoking a cigar. From time to time he stroked the dozen or so strands of coarse dark hair crossing the top of his head, above the four inches of fringe that forms a curtain around the sides and back.

He is Morris Moskowitz -- Moe, as in Moe's Books

Along The Avenue, Moe is known as a brash, loud, abusive, radical, altogether different type of businessman. He has been mythologized in the lore of Berkeley. Some say he used to be a school teacher, some say a boxer. Legend has it that some Hell's Angels. came into the store a few years back to complain about a button he had for sale. They slammed a chain down on the counter and told him to get rid of the button. Moe, according to the legend, picked up the chain, said, "Bullshit! Get out of the store!" and they left.

Actually, Moe home at the time and an employee called him about the visitors. Moe told the motorcycle menaces over the phone to present a real argument against his selling the button and, if he bought their reasoning, he would remove it. They never did and that was the end of that.

At the merchants' meeting Moe spoke only twice in three and a half hours. Once to answer a question and again to make a sensible but relatively insignificant suggestion. Walking down Telegraph afterwards, Moe said, "I surprised you because I kept my fat mouth shut, didn't I?"

He was right.

And that's part of what is difficult in separating Moe from the myth. He often does what is not expected of him. But it is hard to tell whether he is acting differently to throw people off, which he enjoys doing. Or if he is acting differently because the expectations are part of the mythical Moe, not the real Moe.

His image has gone in so many different directions that it is hard for Moe to respond to its demands. He surprises some people, disappoints others and just plain bewilders some more. Much of the Moe myth is built around his being a strong radical. Moe thought he was a radical when he was young and he has always been interested in radical thought, but he was also kicked out of the Young Communist League -- for joking and laughing at meetings. His hero isn't Marx, but it is Groucho. He takes pride in the verbal skills, which he attributes to his New York Jewish background, but there are occasional moments when he speaks quietly and, for him, slowly. At 51 he has been an actor, musician, painter and picture framer. He has neither taught nor boxed. While he is involved on The Avenue and, some say, obsessed with his bookstore, away from there he is neither as sociable nor as flamboyant. He walks in a brisk step, he dresses more in convenience than style and he is the confessed sloppiest eater in the world. His hair gives a theatrical appearance and his loud, often intimidating speech presents an image of an insult comedian.

Yet for all the loudness and boistrous joking that make up Moe's way, there is an equally serious, though often just as loud, bent to his manner. He was his loudly serious self when he stoppen on The Avenue at the Heidelberg cafe after the merchants' meeting.

Moe amid another remodeling
"Business people are concerned about business," he began, settling at the table with his cheesecake and coffee. "Basically, they could care less about the problems around them. They have got everything ass-backwards. They look around and they see the people as being undesirable and they want to go back to the way it was. They want to see their old suburban customers come back. If they would be a little calmer, there'd not be these problems. But instead they tend to back urban renewal to drive out the undesirables. Ass-backwards."

(A while back Moe and a few other store owners tried to get the merchants along The Avenue involved in HELP -- Heroin Emergency Life Project. The idea was that shopkeepers would provide the money for a program to help addicts straighten out. And though in the beginning there was good attendance at the meetings, the support dwindled quickly and has now pretty much faded away. Moe, one of the few who continues the effort, admittedly didn't expect interest to remain high, but he did hope that they could continue to drum money out of the merchants for HELP.)

"Business people could have done a lot more for this and other problems on The Avenue. It is not a thing of buying off the trashers. It is just something you ought to do. Shit, I don't believe in buying off trashers. You can't do it anyway."

Moe's way to combat trashing has been to be involved, to be accessible, actually approachable, and willing to talk about problems. And this may account for his never being trashed. ("It's hard to break the window of someone you know.") He also never closes his bookstore during the trashings the way most merchants do. He never puts up boards although he has a lot of glass and, like all of the area's merchants can no longer get insurance on the windows. Instead he sits behind the counter and wears the most bored look he can manage.

Moe is disturbed by the association of breaking windows with political action. "If it's a political act, it has to accomplish something. This has just made things worse. I can't buy that this is anything but petulance, just a vicarious outlet that has nothing to do with serious politics, Hell, I'd even let a guy -- if he wasn't too strong -- pound on me if that would help him."

"There is an illusion radicals have that businessmen are well together and organizing a concerted campaign to drive them out. They buy this conspiracy theory. It's all in their minds. These businessmen couldn't get together enough to conspire. They can't even do anything in the open. True, some guy may be a real bastard, but he doesn't have the wherewithall to oppress anyone."

Most businessmen, to use Moe's expression, "hang by their toenails." His bookstore shows a net minus -- $1300 for the year, and several of the merchants at the meeting, including one generally assumed to be quite well off, told of having serious financial problems. Moe places small businesses in an endangered species category. people have a sentimental, perhaps nostalgic, attachment to little businesses, but as in the case of vanishing wildlife, they don't realize how hard it is to survive.

"People complain about the big corporations taking over everything," Moe said through the last bite of cheesecake, "but people are creating the situation with trashings because the little guy can't make it. But with a franchise outfit, if one store gets hit, the others in the chain cover for it."

The conversation, coming to an end as was the coffee, turned to the future of The Avenue. Moe thought a long time, his fingers moving about his chin and mouth as he turned over the idea in his mind, and then he said slowly, particularly slowly for him, "If you talked to me a couple of years ago, I would have told you things were getting better. But the last trashing changed all that. if two years could pass without this -- I mean trashings -- and then it happens, that means that we probably can't ever say we've seen the last of it. Particularly because that got People's Park after the trashings, so it looks as though the trashing was responsible for getting the park."

Trashing was still on Moe's mind as he left the Heidelberg and walked down Telegraph in his quick, rather jaunty gait that is even made more carefree by his disregard for walk-don't walk signals in all types of traffic. He commented on the ways different shops were plywooded. ("Jesus! Look at Fraser's. He's painted doves on the boards.") He talked about the coming of Fortress Architecture to The Avenue. With his cigared hand he pointed out the merchants who were trying to duck bankruptcy, the ones trying to be more to The Avenue than just a store and the ones that really didn't care at all about the problems around them.

II

May guilt Drip Like
Polluted Water Into
The Brainpans Of
Those Who Steal
-- Ancient Levittown Proverb

The curse -- a sign on the wall of Moe's Books -- is not taken as seriously as the store's owner would like. Bet then hardly anything is taken too seriously at Moe's Books. Above the open doorway that leads to the backroom is an unreasonable facsimile of Moe in the form of a portrait, done in the paint-by-numbers genre -- bearing the legend "Our Founder." On the walls are various graphics and autographed pictures of personalities ranging from Anais Nin to Juan Marichal.

The store at 2484 Telegraph stays open 93 hours a week with the heaviest hours of sales usually being the last of the night. The store has a mood that in many respects reflects its owner. When Moe is there, his rapid-fire chatter fills the store from the loft to the basement. When he's absent, a low din settles in the store as if his utterings are still echoing off unfinished pine bookshelves. Relaxed and open, and, unlike most used bookstores, well-lighted, Moe's has attracted a clientele of serious, steady book readers.

Moe's Books is really more like four or five stores. It offers used paperbacks and hardbacks, review books at used prices, records (most of which are used), publishers' overstock, a selection of new books (particularly on modern lifestyles and poetry) and quasi-esoteric periodicals and pamphlets along with progressive comic books.

"I have a view that I've got the bookstore of the future. All good general used bookstores will be based on this model," he said.

Moe's prototype is dependent upon having a large selection of used paperbacks that are turned over quickly. Then used hardbacks are bought selectively at good prices to round out the store and to appeal to those people who don't like paperbacks. Everything is then tied in with a versatile trading policy that allows the customer a better deal if he takes the price the store pays for his book in trade instead of cash. Plus that he can trade paperbacks for hardbacks, hardbacks for records, or any combination.

To an extent the Moe model is already being adopted as stores in Ann Arbor, Cambridge, and Santa Cruz have been set up in this manner after the owners consulted with Moe. The evolution of the "Moe type" of store is in large part based on the changing demands on used bookstores. The old-fashioned used book dealer would set up shop in a low-rent but high-traffic area just out of the prime business district of the city. He would pay so little for used books that he could make a go of it even with small receipts. But the coming of book clubs, paperbacks, publishers' overstocks and changes and other cost factors undermined the old system.

To Moe's way of thinking, the traditional used book store is doomed in the long run because of its failure to react to these changes. But to these economic developments killing off old style stores for their own indulgence. "The image of the used bookstore owner is a quiet, calm, withdrawn fellow who sits in the corner and drinks coffee and plays chess with friends all day instead of working in the store. That's shitass!

"I'm really interested in the bookstore. I've learned you can't be good unless you're really into it yourself," said Moe, who works five days a week and every third Sunday and always drops by for an hour or so on his day off days. "Besides that, I'm physically hyperactive."

Much of the reputation of Moe's Books comes not from the books it sells, but from those it buys. The store has broken away from the traditional pattern of buying everything cheap, and as a result has become known for paying the best prices for what little it will buy. A young woman from San Francisco brought eight good-sized boxes of books to Moe. He took half a dozen and paid her $20.

"I'd rather go through a box and find one, pay $5 for it than buy the box unseen for $1. Having all that trash would wear out the shopper and take up space," Moe said.

He has developed a version of speed reading for selecting books. He never sees the one he is going to reject, only the ones he wants to buy. In effect he looks at all the titles, but just those he wants register with him.

Moe had 10 employees. Turnover is low (one fellow has worked for Moe nine years; some have been with him four, five, six years). The pay is good (a relatively new employee makes $3.50 an hour and most get $4.50 of $5 an hour; the monthly payroll runs $6500).

"People who work for me are involved," Moe said. Much of the employee's involvement in the store is founded in Moe's approach to the business. "My idealism never had anything to hang on. I was never attached to politics, to anything real. So I attached what idealism I had left to business."

Originally Moe had the idea for an egalitarian store, but he found that a business could never be totally idealistic, so he has tried to make it close enough not to desert the ideals, but to utilize them. He doesn't really present himself as "the boss" to the people working for him, so most of them have picked up the idealism. Moe admits that this has brought on some problems that a normal businessman would not have.

"Emotionally, I am the garbage pail of the store," he said. "My idea of getting along is to tell me I'm wrong." The store is based on the premise that anything can change and there is a tendency not to defend the way something is done. "As a result I don't really control the store," Moe said, "but we have better rapport this way."

III

The Moskowitz home is on Lewiston, a relatively quiet, comfortable street in southeast Berkeley. The house, with its tan stucco first floor and brown asbestos shingle second level, generally has a medium-sized clutter of toys boards and gardening equipment about the front porch and yard.

Up in the attic a sewing class for heroin addicts is conducted daily. Moe's wife, Barbara, oversees the vocational rehabilitation project and an addict who once was a professional tailor teaches the six or seven pupils in the class. They are on the methadone program and the sewing instruction is intended to at least make them employable.

They have two children -- Doris, five, and Katy, eight -- both of whom go to Walden School. Barbara has two other children by her first marriage. Roger, 21, is in school in Portland, Ore., and Allison, 19, goes to a crafts school in England. Barbara and Moe were married shortly after he came to California 13 years ago.

Moe had gotten to the point he hated New York, but it took him until he was 38 to leave. He was born in Long Island City in 1921, went to Queens College off and on for three years, and had spent most of his time in Manhattan as an actor, a violin student and a painter who did picture framing to live on. When he got to California he worked for a while as a picture framer until he was fired.

Moe stabbed inefficiently at the curried chicken with his chopsticks. The juice splashed onto both his coat and the tablecloth in the Sino Place on Channing Way. Between forays for food, he talked about his way of talking.

"I certainly don't mince words," he began, "I have some characteristics left from New York. We talk fast and verbal skills are very prominent in New Yorkers. They throw out a lot of verbal abuse like in the stories you hear about cab drivers and waiters in New York.

"I suppose my quickness disturbs some people. My motor runs very fast and I talk very fast," he said very fast. "I'd rather carry on three conversations at once like some lunatic, than listen to someone else talk. It I think I am going to hear something I've heard before, I fall asleep. A lot of people just won't talk to me. My wife goes out of the room. And there are some times when I don't have the slightest idea what I am doing."

He is proud of his verbal skills and looks upon them as providing a charisma, like his hero Groucho Marx throwing out quickie one-liners so fast they stumble over each other. He likes to think of himself as a comedian. But the voice of Moe is at its ultimate when someone tries to sell a stolen book to him.

"THIS BOOK IS STOLEN!" he screams out and everyone in the store turns around and stares a the person trying to peddle it.

"Sure, sometimes I offend innocent people, but I'd rather do that than have someone think I buy stolen books," he said. " And I'm right 97, 98% of the time."

He likes to think he intimidates people who enter Moe's Books with deliberate loudness, but away from the store he is not as open and he doesn't run around yelling at people. There was almost an apologetic tone when he spoke of his mercantile self.

"You've got to understand. I am a businessman by default. I could have been a painter, but my eyes weren't good enough. I could have been a musician, but I didn't have enough talent. I was an actor for a while and pretty good too, but I don't have the stamina. I could have been an employee, but I couldn't have gotten along with an employer."

-- By Bob Rothe, The Pelican, Fall, 1972