Moe - One of a Kind

Three aluminum cigar tubes and a comb protrude from bookseller Morris (Moe) Moskowitz's jacket pocket. The role of the comb is unimportant, almost superfluous, but the cigars -- Cuesta-Rey, domestic -- are a Moskowitz trademark.

Cigar smoke and Moskowitz's terse manner may have driven a few customers out of his Telegraph Avenue bookstore. But not many. After the famous Strand in New York, Moe's is, by Moskowitz's account, probably the biggest used-book store in the nation.

Business at the four-story booklover's mecca, up 20 percent from last year, is booming.

"It has to," says Moskowitz. His overhead just begins with the $10,000 monthly payment on the five-year-old building.

Nothing that Moe has touched hasn't worked out," says Martha Burk, who works at Bibliomania just down the street.

Moskowitz has been heard to say that he owns a bookstore because he's otherwise unemployable.

"I think he's probably right," says one long-time associate. "He's a very complicated guy."

Twenty-five years ago another bookseller, Everett Cunningham, ran the Joyce bookstore across Telegraph Avenue from Moe's, where the Cafe Mediterraneum is today.

"Moe and Fred Cody really presaged the rise of the paperback," says Cunningham. "But when Moe began in that tiny little location down on Shattuck, we all figured he would bomb. Hard work is why he succeeded."

Cody's owner Andy Ross looks thoughtful when asked for observations on Moskowitz and his business. "Well," Ross finally offers, "he usually has a tunafish sub for lunch."

"I would say that Moe has a revulsion to book dealer," says a long-time friend. "It's real important to him to be the opposite of that elegant, patrician bookdealer image. I think the cigars and the food stains on his front mean to him that he's earthy, and Jewish and real."

A certain reality must also attach to the steady growth of Moe's trade, which outgrew four different stores during the turbulent '60s on Telegraph Avenue.

Not all Moe Moskowitz's stands on'60s issues were as popular as his book business. He disapproved of the takeover of People's Park, the South Campus site owned by the University that still symbolizes the rebellious confrontations of the late '60s. His own view of good business for him and Berkeley -- or San Francisco -- is likely to differ from that of various city regulatory bodies.

Even for a bookseller, Moskowitz, now 62, has a checkered collage of education and careers behind him. At Queens College he majored in economics, but instead of going into business he became an actor -- in the '50s playing some lead roles with the avant-garde Living Theater in Manhattan.

He followed with serial immersion in painting (Cooper Union, Art Students League) and then in music, taking up the violin, which he had abandoned as a child. He earned a living as a picture framer.

Viewing himself as "a kind of eclectic failure," he decided he might be happier and live more cheaply in the temperate regions of the Bay Area. In San Francisco he did more picture framing, and he got married.

His wife Barbara had money of her own, two children, and ideas about progressive education, so they moved to Berkeley, where she helped found Walden School. The children, including two daughters from their own marriage, went to Walden.

In Berkeley Moskowitz found a job framing and other work for a Japanese import store on Shattuck Avenue. The owner eventually tried bookselling in another location, but was failing badly when Moskowitz bought out his small stock and turned the store into a used-book bookstore.

Consulting other booksellers -- including Henry Evans, later to make his name with botanical prints -- Moe decided he had a good chance of making a go of the enterprise.

"The difference between me and every other book dealer I ever met was that I had theories about the business. The others had sentiments, hoary ideas, bromides -- even prejudices against paperbacks," say Moskowitz.

In 1962 he moved to Telegraph Avenue, but took what he describes as "a couple of detours" before devoting himself to his own Berkeley book business. He tried a partnership with Bill Cartwright, who later opened Shakespeare & Company after Moskowitz bought his way out of what later turned out to be an unhappy relationship.

"I'd just as soon not talk about it," says Cartwright evenly. "It's past history. Moe's been successful because there was room for a large second-hand bookstore than on Telegraph Avenue. He's thought big, and he's had good employees."

One investment Moskowitz said he made gladly was for salaries and benefits for his 17 to 18 employees, some of whom have been with him for 10 to 20 years and make as much as $35,000 a year, with benefits.

"It's a big place and I tend to keep it understaffed," says Moskowitz. "I'd rather have a few but good people who really know the stock."

Bob Baldock, who has been with him for 19 years, and Robert Brown, there for ten, are about to open a bookstore of their own on the North Side. They will continue working part-time at Moe's, bearing out Baldock's statement that Moskowitz has "been pretty decent to me. He has his own way of building a king of allegiance to himself among his staff."

Another of Moskowitz's "detours" jumped across the bay, where he once intended to open another second-hand bookstore in the Haight-Ashbury.

"The local merchants were against it," he says. "I was identified with the hippies, just when things were changing in that neighborhood. Also they had the idea that I was a 'fence.' Of course, I never have been, but in fact a lot of used book dealers are."

When his business permit was denied, he went to court in San Francisco and then back for another hearing. He lost again.

"I'm a pretty stubborn guy," he says, "and I kept trying to do something with the building I had planned to use for the store. Country Joe and the Fish used to practice there, and the Indians took it over for a while. I used to call it the Cockamamie Palace. But I was losing $700 or $800 a month on it, so I finally gave it back to the owner."

A everyone knows, a lot was happening on Telegraph Avenue in the late '60s. "I seemed to have has a lot of energy at that time," Moskowitz recalls. "We had rock bands -- Joe and the Fish and other groups -- performing in the store, poetry readings..."

Some of that energy went into his controversial stand on the explosive issue of People's Park. In 1969, a motley group of street people, radical organizers, and students took over the two blocks of university-owned acreage which had been leveled for student housing that never materialized. They planted grass and trees and made a playground of an area that had been used mainly for a parking lot. Symbolic and actual property rights were at stake. When the university put up a fence around the park, a series of violent confrontations was touched off that eventually brought the National Guard to occupy Berkeley.

Moe Moskowitz was always opposed to People's Park, and he still is today. "It wasn't about a park. It was about the university and about the Vietnam War. It reached the point where it seemed to me that people organizing demonstrations were really planning violence, actually planning to provoke police harassment. It wasn't honest."

He was angry when his former wife -- they have been separated five years -- contributed sod to the park effort.

Park advocates claimed Moskowitz's only interest in the space was for parking for his business. He says that the park people have proven that they can't keep control of what goes on there of develop and take care of the park.

"It wasn't part of an emerging ecology movement, as some said. It was all political," he says. "I proposed that the city take a long lease from the university, keep it as open space -- maybe with some parking -- and also take open responsibility for maintaining and patrolling it. I passed a couple of petitions, but I'm not really a political type."

Through the years, however, he has been to court a number of times ("and lost every time," he acknowledges). He has also appealed a municipal ruling or two.

Well before street venders became an established part of the Berkeley scene he protested a ruling preventing him from having a kiosk in front of his former store on Shattuck Avenue.

"I took the position that any amenities should not necessarily be considered obstructions, that irregularities and not regularity makes a city interesting." The Arts Commission bought his perspective, but the City Council did not. Telling this story, Moskowitz opened one of the notorious cigars, and examined it thoughtfully before lighting it. He has had a few run-ins over the city's anti-smoking ordinance.

"He has quite a sense of humor," say Everett Cunningham. "I think he kind of liked to stand around smoking to defy the city, to be regarded as the local Bad Boy."

Despite his thousands of rare books and first editions, Moskowitz is not a member of the national antiquarian book dealers' association, and he has avoided the celebrated lawsuit against chain discounting lodged by the Northern California Booksellers' Association.

Though he says he attended a few meetings of the Sather Gate Merchants Association, he feels the group has no signs "of being able to address real problems."

"I'm just no good at organized activity. I get restless unless it's my own thing," he says. His maverick position keeps him clear of political allegiances.

Keeping his own brisk business is time-consuming enough. Around 70 percent of his stock is used books, priced from 13 cents to $3,000, but he points out that he also carries more new books than a lot of general bookstores.

Occasionally Moskowitz makes forays into sidelines such as records, discounting, and remainders. However, he says his most dependable means of bringing people to the store are his huge stock and his liberal book-trading terms. In specialties, such as art and photography books and out-of-print scholarly volumes Moe says Moe's is the best on the West Coast.

"Actually, I think I get people from all over the world," he says.

Tom Hunt, a neighborhood activist and one of the managers at the Reprint Mint next door to Moe's, has known Moe almost 15 years. He agrees Moe's helps bring customers from all over to shop the Avenue.

Telegraph Avenue is the book center for the Bay Area, which is the fifth largest metropolitan area in the country. "Let's face it, the bookstores make Telegraph special in a way that pants and record stores don't," says Hunt.

Moe," says Hunt, "is a wonderful guy to have around. There's nobody like him. He's definitely unique, brings a real diversity to this city."

Without undue modesty, Moskowitz himself says that he thinks he has one of the best trade bookstores in the country, maybe in the world.

"I think it's a real vindication of my ideas. I have a very practical bent -- like my father -- though I had to fight it at first trying a lot of other routes."

Still, he adds, "It may sound crazy, but there's always a possibility of this business failing, even though it's doing well right now. But as time goes on my reputation is bound to get better."

On the whole he doesn't sound very worried.

-- By Frances Starn, Berkeley Gazette, 9/6/83