Moe Books Less Money

Walking into Moe's Books, almost as venerable a Berkeley institution as Sather Gate, you're struck not by the musty odor of old books, but by the smell of owner Moe Moskowitz's cigars. Moskowitz, a committed cigar smoker and as much an institution as his store, has long defied Berkeley's ban on in-store smoking. It's only part of what makes Moe Moe, and Moe's Moe's.


Moskowitz gets a bit testy when people dwell on the cigar business. What interests him is the book business -- in particular the used-book business. And what distinguishes Moe's is the very absence of that musty smell, those piles of unsorted tomes, the mystique of a treasure waiting atop the next shelf.

Soon after Moe acquired his first bookstore, a Shattuck Avenue hole-in-the-wall, in 1959, he realized that what the used-book business needed was revolution. "Dealers generally were careless about the books they bought, so long as they were cheap," he says, "and they would sell just about anything, the theory being that you could always sell a book."

In 1962, Moe's moved to Telegraph Avenue, center of Berkeley's campus community, and has been part of the scene, though at different addresses, ever since. About ten years ago, Moskowitz built his current four-story shop -- it has 13,000 square feet, a size Moe says is a necessity -- and added both new and remaindered books to his stock.

Some old customers objected to a used bookstore that was most people's idea of a new bookstore, light, clean, orderly and spacious. But most of the faithful, such as Berkeley poet Julia Vinograd, who initially labeled the store a "Greyhound Station," have come around. As for the changes on Telegraph Avenue since the Hippie '60s, Moskowitz is unflappable. "The store goes on in its own way," he says, pointing out that many of his customers come to Berkeley specifically to patronize him.

Moe Moskowitz's looks belie the neatness of his store. Balding, shabby, fast-talking and stocky despite a daily exercise routine, he is a self-proclaimed anarchist who admits that he really had no purpose before going into the book business. The son of a New York furrier, Moskowitz attended art school and was attracted to politics and drama. (He retains a flair for the dramatic and the eccentric. A famous poster celebrating the opening of one of the stores depicts Moskowitz in top hat and tails, holding aloft a Dixie cup.) In New York, he did some acting, among other roles, Ubu Roi at the Cherry Lane Theatre, then made woodcutting and stonecutting tools before moving to the Bay Area.

"Now people ask me what I did do," he says, "I did this store, that's what I did. It's nothing great, but it's good enough for me. I made my point -- simply that you could run a much better used bookstore than other people did."

At 66, does Moskowitz contemplate retirement? No way, he says, "I'm going to stay with this thing and then keel over."

-- by Renata Polt, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/28/88