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Bookseller’s legacy lives at Moe’s

By Claudine LoMonaco Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday March 28, 2002

Like so many literary towers of Pisa, piles of books teeter around the register at Moe’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. 

“We move a lot a books here,” said Moe’s employee Robert Eliason. “A thousand a day maybe?”  

Their total number of books?  

“350,000? 400,000? Who knows,” he said. “The entire inventory turns over every nine months.” 

For many Berkeley newcomers, Moe’s four-story emporium is simply the best place to find high quality used books in the East Bay. But for others Moe’s is far more than a bookstore: it is the living memory of Morris “Moe” Moskowitz, legendary bookseller, pool player, cigar smoker and crowd pleaser extraordinaire.  

Approaching the five-year anniversary of his death at the age of 75 on April 1, 1997, his memory, like his beloved bookstore, is still very much alive and well. 

“He trusted people and knew how to work to their strengths,” said 22-year Moe’s employee Laura Tibbals. “Plus he worked hard. He plunged the toilet.” 

He also revolutionized the way used books were sold.  

Before Moe’s, used book sellers paid just pennies for books and then jacked up the prices considerably. “Consequently, they didn’t have very good books,” said poet and long time Moe’s employee Bill Owen. Moskowitz changed all that in the early 60’s by offering 50% of a book’s cover price for a customer wanting payment in trade, and 30% for cash. Almost immediately, Owen says, the books started flowing in and Moe’s took off.  

Customers who take their payment in trade, still receive green “Moe Dollars” featuring a top hatted, cigar smoking caricature of Moscowitz and the words “In God and Moe we Trust.”  

An old communist from NewYork, Moskowitz’s business practices- good wages and benefits (including a four day work week and pension plan), fair prices, both in buying and selling of books, and an unflappable preoccupation for doing right by his workers and customers- nurtured staff and customer loyalty.  

If a customer showed up at the register with a new book, and Moskowitz knew the store had a used copy for much cheaper, he’d tell them where it was, or even go get it for them. Policies like that earned the loyalty of customer’s like Dave Brewer, a retired sociology professor from Fresno who’s been coming to Moe’s since 1964.  

And though Moskowitz died nearly five years ago, you wouldn’t know it from the change in staff- most of the 25 to 30 staff members on board now were hired under his watch. Half have been then longer than 10 years, and several longer than twenty. “A lot of people will work here until the day they die,” said Tibbals. 

“Moe was a real communist with a sense of fairness,” added Ken Eastman who has worked in Moe’s fine book section for the past eight years. “If you weren’t messing up, you were employed for life.”  

On Moskowitz’s death, ownership passed on to his daughter and ex-wife, Barabara. The former Mrs. Moskowitz, who recently passed away, was also known for her generosity.  

Not much, customers and staff said, has changed at Moe’s. “We were all worried it would go down hill, but it’s as well stocked as ever,” said Tibbals. 

What the staff misses terribly, of course, is Moskowitz. 

“He made working seem like a party,” said Owen.  

The stocky, balding Moskowitz was known for his sense of humor and outrageous antics like singing along to his favorite Pakistani music or lighting up his cigar in flagrant violation of Berkeley’s no smoking ordinance. A customer not in the know would flash him a dirty look to which he’d respond with a redition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and eventually, the police would show up. “It was great theater,” said Owen. 

When Moscowitz’s died of heart failure on April Fool’s Day, “a lot of people didn’t believe it” said Don Frew, employee of the Shambala buddhist bookstore next door to Moe’s. “They thought it was a joke.”  

As the news sunk in, it was met by a spontaneous outpouring of grief. Frew watched from the Shambala window as flowers and offerings sprang up in front of the shop on Telegraph. “I heard this low grumbling sound, looked out, and saw naked bodies wailing and throwing themselves against the windows.” 

They were members of the Berkeley Naked Art Players, performing an elaborate mourning dance to the gurgling drones of a didgeridoo. 

“I don’t think the staff or family appreciated it much,” but, Frew added, it was emblematic of how deeply people cared about the cantankerous old book seller.  

Mayor Shirly Dean went on to officially decree April 20, 1997 as “Moe’s Day” in Berkeley, “the city that he loved and that in turn loved him.” U.S. Poet Laureate and Berkeley Professor eulogized him on NPR. And his friends, family, staff and customers held a memorial on Telegraph, closing off the street in his honor. 

Amidst the delicate Japanese silk wall hangings at Shambala’s, a prominently displayed commemorative photo of Moskowitz, ubiquitous cigar in hand, grins out from above the cash register. He shares a shelf with photos of two revered Tibetan Lamas and Shambala’s founder Sam Bercholz. 

“Moe was a very generous person” said Shambala owner Philip Barry. In 1968 Moscowitz gave Shambala a small space in his original bookstore, and in 1969 gave it the start up money to expand into its own space next door.  

“Generous, but not a sucker,” said Barry. Shambala later went on to become one of the country foremost publishers of Buddhist books. “He was a very savvy business man.” 

“It still feels like he’s here,” said Berry, even five years after his death. “His presence was that strong.”