They Helped Define the 20th Century

Not surprisingly for a college town, Berkeley is a city of bookstores -- and memorable bookstore owners, including the late Fred Cody and Frank Morley.

But none was more memorable than Moe Moskowitz, the eponymous owner of Moe's Books and the unofficial mayor of Telegraph Avenue.

People think of Moe as a product of the '60s, but they couldn't be more wrong. Moe hated the '60s -- at least , it's excesses. He'd snort at the more over-the-top tactics of the Peoples Park demonstrators. (He used to call it "some people's park.")

But his greatest wrath was reserved for dope dealers. Moe was throwing them out of his store decades before it became fashionable.

Not for him the self-indulgent posturing and self-righteous intolerance of the Baby Boomers. Moe came from an earlier generation -- a generation that prized words and ideas above all. He never could fathom why people wanted to befuddle their minds with drugs when there were so many good books to read, instead.

But he was a notorious soft touch for the down-and-out, even when he knew they were scamming him. He also let anyone off the street use the bathroom, which tended to make it a tad funky.

But if you like to read, Moe's Books was -- and is -- a booklover's paradise. One of the reasons other booksellers revered him was that he revolutionized the used book business.

He did it by the simple expedient of paying decent wages to his staff and giving fair prices to his customers for the books they turned in.

"If he ever caught us paying less than the book was worth, he'd hit the ceiling," says Bob Baldock, one of the longtime Moe's staffers who went on to found Black Oak Books. "Actually, it turned out to be a smart business practice in the long run, but Moe did it because he thought of the customers as his family." It was a sentiment his customers and fellow book dealers returned with interest.

When Moe died in 1997, Harvey Segal, who owns Shakespeare's Books right across the street, paid tribute with this sign in his window: "Old booksellers never die -- they just go out of print."

-- By Martin Snapp, The Berkeley Voice, December 31, 1999

Martin Snapp is a columnist for the Contra Costa Times. He also wrote for the Oakland Tribune and Berkeley Voice among other Bay Area publishers. The other figures profiled in his article were Police Chief August Vollmer, architects Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck, tennis stars Helen Wills and Don Budge, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Free Speech leader Mario Savio, former congressman and current mayor of Oakland Ron Dellums, composer John Adams and Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and one of the founders of California Cuisine.