Moe Moskowitz, Longtime Bookstore Baron

BERKELEY-- "When people come into my store and meet me, they're sometimes taken aback," said Moe Moskowitz, 64, over a taco at a Telegraph Avenue restaurant. " I don't exactly fit the model of the antiquarian type sitting at the counter reading poetry and sipping cappuccino. Let's face it. I talk a little loud, I smoke a cigar and my employees sometimes ridicule me. Hey, this isn't Waldenbooks."

Since 1959, Moe has operated his used bookstore at five different Berkeley locations. His latest incarnation, a four-story concrete structure on Telegraph Avenue, is one of the most successful used bookstores in the nation.

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Numbers tell part of the story. He did about $1.7 million in sales last year. Stock turns over about three times a year, an impressive number for a store of this type. And employees here average $20,000 a year for a 32 hour week. Not bad for the book business.

"I don't think anyone should work more than 32 hours in a business like this," said Moe. "I don't. It's too stressful."

And while the business is profitable, Moe is the ultimate sole proprietor, unwilling to conform to the principles of modern management. "I don't know how many books I have in the store. It would be too hard to do inventory for a store like this. The store makes a 5 to 10 percent profit, and we have an international reputation. Customers come from all over the world," he said.

A graduate of Queens College in New York, he headed West in 1958 and built the business with his former wife Barbara. Moe thinks his is the second oldest used bookstore in the East Bay. Holmes Book Company is the oldest.

Moe attributes his success to breaking many of the established rules of his trade.

"The problem with most new businesses is that they are undercapitalized. To be successful you have to outlast your own mistakes."

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First-time Moe's visitors are surprised that it looks more like a store for new books than used ones (Moe does stock new titles and remainders, but the heart of his stock is previously owned titles). The selections is impressive and he is also very strong on art books.

"I think this may be the best used bookstore I've ever seen," said Carlene Lind, a Denver visitor who picked up several French Renaissance biographies. "And the prices are great."

Moe proudly discounts used hardcover and trade paperbacks to 60 percent of their cover price. Used mass market paperbacks sell for 50 percent. "You see a lot of used bookstores ink out the cover price and then discount from the current list. Take a Penguin that originally sold for $3. In my store you can get it for $1.50. But other used bookstores will look up the selling price of the current edition, $9.95 and discount to $6. In this store you can get old editions of 25 cent Pocket Books for 13 cents. New editions of the same title might cost $3.95."

Moe offers 30 percent in cash and 50 percent in trade to used-book sellers. "When I started doing that other used booksellers thought I was crazy. They pointed out, quite rightly, that someone could come in, trade for books and walk out the door without paying a cent. but those trade slips are my advertising. Customers often don't always use up the credit on the first visit. They come back, trade, and then buy some more.

"It's a good system because the seller ends up getting more for his books and better prices. That generates my word of mouth. It also makes sellers think of me first when they are ready to deal. As a result, I tend to get high quality stock," he contends.

"The other key to this store is that it doesn't look like a used bookstore. It's not a crowded, dimly lit, poorly managed place with books dropped everywhere. We keep the place well lit, neatly organized and clean. Customers prefer that."

Although Moe's cement block architecture hardly qualifies for the national register of historic places, some old patrons believe the store is a true landmark.

When author Peter Collier (The Kennedys) moved from Oakland to the Gold Country a few years ago, he was asked what he missed most about the Eastbay. "I miss the Med (the venerable Telegraph Avenue coffee house) and I miss Moe's," he said.

-- By Roger Rapoport, The Oakland Tribune, January 20, 1986