Moe left you alone ... sometimes

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Moe's Books in Berkeley is what you would call an institution. Moe prided himself in the '60s on being one of the few Telegraph Avenue merchants that didn't have his window broken by The Demonstrators. In the '70s, however, I think some drunk fell through it. Anyway, in the '60s, not to have your windows broken by the demonstrators was an achievement. At the very least it meant that Moe was skillfully and politically in tune with the times, and at the most it meant that he was a mensch. Most certainly it meant that he had been put to, and survived, a test of character.

If Moe's was an institution, Moe was its leading inmate. I worked for him in the '70s and like to think that I built a few tables of old records into a serious used record department. Then the store was still called Moe's Books and Records. Though Moe was a bookman, he wisely saw used records as a natural addition to his store. He also loved music, claiming to have been the world's most committed and worst violin student. He probably was.

Moe has always said that he had only one good idea. That was to pay a customer a decent price or give him a decent amount of trade for used books. In a business that was characterized by dealers who paid almost nothing, that was revolutionary. In fairness, he also paid his people extremely well. And he left you alone . . . sometimes.

I applied his one good idea to used records and it worked. Moe's basement,The Pit, filled with old records. New bins were built, filled up with used records, and more were built. Used book tables were taken down or pushed aside. We even displaced Moe's friend who sold used comics there on Saturday morning. More and more records came in, and went out.

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It seemed that at least one copy of every record ever made showed up at that store. With the volume we did, this must have been true. Sometimes on a Saturday, and with two or three people working, we would still fall behind in buying and would literally become surrounded by old records. They would be stacked on the floor, on the counter, next to the counter and under the counter, and still people would stand in line five or six deep offering us arms full of old records.

So many records came in, that the ones we couldn't use were given to the L'Chaim School for Dropouts (another Berkeley institution), or were put in a free box, or were thrown out. I remember, when Fantasy Records reissued some of the Prestige Catalogue on Two-fers, a customer came in with some originals for trade, convinced that the reissues were better. The ones that we couldn't use he threw out; among them an original Tenor Madness, with John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. With classical records, we seldom discriminated between different issues and I remember pricing first label RCA stereo records at $3.00, and receiving complaints when I suggested raising the price to $4.00 or $5.00. The classical collectibles of the time were the old monos from the early '50s, these commanding the hefty price of $10.00 to $15.00. They sold, the RCAs sold, the old jazz sold, the rock sold. Everything sold.

As record sales, and more importantly the book sales, became greater, Moe talked more and more about building his own building and about having the biggest used store on the West Coast.

And he began not leaving me alone. I quit. But that's another story.

--Ron Penndorf