By David Yetter
Moe Moskowitz opened the doors of Moe’s Books in 1959, and so established one of America’s preeminent independent bookstores, a favorite destination for book-loving locals and tourists alike. Now boasting an inventory of over 200,000 new, used, and rare selections, Moe’s was noted by the New York Times in 2008 as the bookstore where “those in the know still all head.” Moe revolutionized the predigital used book business by establishing buying policies that ensured a trust with his customers: the highest prices would be assured when they brought their books to his store. Moe may be gone, but his policies and store remain very much alive today.
Born in 1921 in New York City, Morris Moskowitz was always a creative and independent spirit, establishing his bona fides as an iconoclast by walking out on his own bar mitzvah because he didn't believe in rituals. After coming of age, he settled in Manhattan’s East Village, where he studied painting and art history at Cooper Union and philosophy at Queens College. He was also briefly a member of the Young Communist League (before getting kicked out for having too many opinions), and an avowed pacifist who was arrested many times protesting World War II.
A stint in the merchant marines was complemented by a love of jazz, opera, acting, and pool. The need to earn a living led Moe to an eclectic range of potential professions: house painter, ice cream man, worker at a pocketbook factory, and apprentice picture framer. It was this last pursuit which led him to the Bay Area in 1955, where he settled in Berkeley. It was Berkeley where he met his future wife, Barbara Stevens, who, as part of an anarchist collective had formed Berkeley’s Walden School. Moe and Barbara were married in 1958, and soon teamed up to open the Paperback Bookshop in downtown Berkeley. This was the seed that would eventually grow to form Moe’s Books, which grew from that humble beginning into the four-story fixture on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue that it is today.
Though he may have married, Moe never lost his edge, or his passion for progressive causes. As he began his life as a Berkeley merchant and citizen, he sparred with the City Council over matters ranging from business permits to civic beautification, all of which were a prelude to his involvement in the Free Speech Movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Remaining true to his pacifist principles, Moe opposed not just the war, but any anti-war tactics, such as goading authorities into reactive responses, that could lead to violence. All the while he kept his bookstore open during curfews to shelter protesters and resist what he saw as authoritarian rule.
Politics, however, never diminished his involvement with the arts and culture. Moe frequented local jazz clubs, used his store as a sounding board for his favorite recordings, and started a used record section in the basement of his bookstore, which became a popular hangout for students and collectors. He even helped bring New York style-bagels to Berkeley. He and his wife also raised two daughters, Katherine and Doris, and it is Doris who today owns and operates Moe’s Books, keeping her father’s legacy alive.
What Moe’s family, friends, and customers tend to remember most is his total commitment to the art of bookselling. And to Moe it was an art. Often seven days a week book lovers would find him holding court behind the counter that served as his stage: bantering with customers, debating history and politics, belting out arias, dancing when the mood struck him, all the while puffing on his signature Macanudo cigar (at least until his doctor forbade it).
Perhaps it was no surprise that in 1973 Moe suffered a heart attack, and thus the doctor’s orders (most of which he dutifully followed) began. Yes he started to eat healthier, yes he started exercising, but no he would not give up the cigars. This gesture of defiance was to set off an epic 15-year battle with the Berkeley City Council over the no-smoking ordinance in public spaces. He even offered at one time to turn Moe’s into a “Smoke-easy,” a dream which, to the relief of his staff, was never realized.
But it wasn’t just local politics that impacted Moe’s Books. Sometimes Telegraph Avenue, the exciting and eclectic neighborhood four blocks from University of California, Berkeley, which is home to our historic People's Park and the Free Speech Movement, has negatively impacted the business environment. This motivated Moe to become a bookselling pioneer by selling books online in the nascent internet community, making Moe's Books one of the first bookstores in cyberspace.
Moe Moskowitz passed away in 1997 but remains an icon in a city full of icons: a bookselling visionary with a firm place in Berkeley’s contemporary history. His legacy is that of a man who held firm to his core beliefs and thus found his place in the universe.