Telegraph Avenue Stops to Recall a Man Named Moe

Telegraph Avenue did not disappoint the real world yesterdaywhen it said goodbye to its dearly rumpled man of letters, Moe the bookseller.

Poets and panhandlers joined professors wearing tweed and three naked people wearing nothing. Halfway through the wake for Moe Moskowitz, proprietor of Moe's Books, there was a pretty good shoving match that required two beefy cops to restore order.

Though it all, a man sold Moe Moskowitz souvenir button on the sidewalk, for $1 a pop.

"I brought about 50 buttons," said the button man. "It's risky. We'll see how it goes."

The consensus among the 500 or so folks who sat on folding chairs for the three hour block party in front of the store was that Moe, who died April 1 at the age of 75 after running his beloved shop for three decades, would have gotten a kick out of it, and also barked at the miscreants to knock it off.

A block of Telegraph Avenue was closed to traffic while the scrubbed and the scruffy took turns at the microphone to praise a man who enjoyed cigars, Rabelais, a good joke, rare first editions and sports coats that had been around.

On that Berkeley street, a panhandler worked the mourners with a handmade sign that said "Need change for a hacksaw and flea powder," and the three naked people, who were making a statement that did not translate, sat on the sidewalk in front of the store and tried to look as if they were not cold, with indifferent success.

It was a big day for the poets who asked to be allowed to read their Moe poems first, before the rest of the eulogies, so they could dash off to the Allen Ginsberg wake and read their Ginsberg poems.

"I remember the continual cheerful grumble/That came out of Moe like cigar smoke/and of course the cigars/Freud said 'sometimes a cigar is just a cigar'/but not now," recited poet Julia Vinograd.

Poet Diane Di Prima declared Moe to be a "bulwark of radical sanity/calling community meetings in his store/while the hippies, police,university and business world raged and rioted/he outgrumped them all."

Cal history professor Leon Litwack called Moe an "individualist in the age of the corporate bookseller" and Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean produced one of those engraved proclamations that mayors are always producing. It had four whereases in it.

"Whereas Moe probably would have laughed at a proclamation like this," she said, and then proclaimed it to be Moe Day. The last time Moskowitz got so much attention from City Hall was 20 years ago, when it threatened to arrest him for smoking his cigars behind the cash register.

The supreme tribute was the decision of Moe's staff to keep the store open during the wake. While the encomiums were being rattled off in front, 80-year-old Iris Cavagnaro, a loyal customer, trooped to the trade-in counter and tried to unload three paperbacks by Colette that were in sadder shape than one of Moe's sport coats. A clerk told her no thanks.

Also staying open was the third-floor rest room, for decades one of the few spots in south Berkeley to find relief. It was a point of pride for Moe, and chagrin to his staff, to keep the toilet open to all. Moskowitz was a political anarchist but not a biological one.

-- By Steve Rubenstein, The San Francisco Chronicle, April 21, 1997