This is No Place to Leave Your Trash

Once a year I go to Berkeley and dump a sack of books on the counter.

I've been doing this for 15 years, partly to clean my shelves and partly to watch the best show in town -- Moe Moskowitz and his cigar.

Moe Moskowitz, used-book maven of the East Bay, has been buying my old books and selling me his old books since I was an undergraduate at the big asylum just down Telegraph Avenue.

He has always come out ahead on our little transactions. Moe, in his ratty terry cloth shirts, can peer through the clouds of self-generated cigar smoke and instantly tell the difference between a good used book and the junk I bring him.

Anyway, I dumped the books on the counter the other day and waited for Moe to begin rejecting them. Miracle of miracles, Moe wasn't on duty. It was a new kid, wet behind the ears.

Maybe my lousy books stood a chance after all. Atop the pile was a guide to Australia.

"Australia is very big these days," I told the kid, "You know. America's Cup. Put another shrimp on the barbie."

The kid nodded and placed the Australia book into the buy pile. Poor kid. The guide book was a 1982 edition, practically worthless.

He did reject a couple of perfectly good trashy novels. Book buyers are like editors -- they have to throw out something. Next up was a sequel to "Treasure Island."

""'Treasure Island' is a classic," I said. "Long John Silver. Fifteen men on a dead man's chest."

He put that book on the buy pile, too, perhaps not noticing it was a sequel. Poor kid. Moe was really going to keelhaul him when he came in later. By then I planned to be long gone.

Also going into the buy pile were two Le Carre spy novels. The kid was just about to make out a credit slip when, suddenly, the jig was up.

Moe himself walked in. He was chomping his cigar like a horse chomps a carrot.

"What's Rubenstein trying to unload today?" he said, then hustled behind the counter to undo the blunders and bark rebukes at the kid and me.

First to go was the Australia books. Moe flipped it back across the counter at me.

"This is a 1982 edition," he said.

Next was the "Treasure Island" sequel. Moe called it junk. The master also spotted the torn covers on the spy novels that the kid missed.

"I've got enough Le Carre anyway," Moe said, tossing it back. "This book, for instance, I've got three copies of it downstairs."

That had to be a bluff. How could Moe know how many copies of a particular title were in stock? I went over to the mystery shelf to check the Le Carre title. Exactly three copies.

Of 15 books offered, Moe took six. The rest, he said, were junk. Moe, a transplanted New Yorker, has been hustling used books since the 1950s and knows junk when he sees it. Then he knocked his cigar on his palm and sent ashes falling to the floor, which was all right because it was his floor. He said he was going to impart the secret of the used book business to me.

"If you buy junk, pretty soon you have a store full of junk. If you let the junk books in, you can't get them out. They don't sell. You know why?"

He enveloped himself in a cloud of smoke, like Alice's caterpillar.

"Because," he said, "this is Berkeley."

-- by Steve Rubenstein, San Francisco Chronicle 10/28/87

Steve Rubenstein is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle