Election Section

Carrying on a Telegraph Avenue Tradition

By ELLEN GROSSHANS Special to the Planet
Tuesday June 29, 2004

Doris Moskowitz readily admits that she keeps one foot planted in the past while charting a new course for her business. She is the proprietor of Moe’s Books, a Berkeley landmark named after her father who was an icon in his own right. Upon the death of Morris “Moe” Moskowitz on April 1, 1997 at the age of 76, then Mayor Shirley Dean declared a “Moe’s Day,” closing the block on Telegraph Avenue where the store is located to allow people to come and pay tribute to its famous owner.  

Not much has changed visibly since Moe’s death, except perhaps the vivid new red awnings that invite customers in to peruse the store’s more than 150,000 volumes of used, new and antiquarian books. Black-and-white photos of the fun-loving, cigar-puffing founder still frame the walls.  

“My mission is to keep the store running according to Moe’s vision,” explained Moskowitz. “At the same time, I have to balance the challenges that face independent bookstores everywhere. Luckily, this store thrives on the goodwill of its employees and the community it serves,” she added.  


A Piece of History  

To understand how a bookstore engenders such loyalty is to understand Moe Moskowitz and the valuable business lessons he passed on to his daughter. The New York native moved to the Bay Area in the late 1950s. Out with friends one evening, he met the woman who later became his wife (and Doris’s mother). It didn’t matter that she was on a blind date with someone else—she was won over by the same charisma and spontaneity for which people remember him. Together, they opened the Paperback Bookshop on Shattuck, near University Avenue.  

In 1959, the bookstore outgrew its space and moved to Telegraph Avenue where it was renamed Moe’s Books. The store was at the epicenter of the politically-charged events of the 1960s, which suited Moe’s passionate and outspoken nature just fine. People from all over came to chat with Moe and revel in his larger-than-life persona. In the 1970s, when Berkeley banned smoking in public places, Moe was cited a number of times by police for continuing to smoke his cigars in his store.  

During these years, Doris worked in the store during summers and school holidays. Fourteen years ago, after graduating from Mills College with a degree in literature and music, she decided to join the store full-time. But it wasn’t that simple. “Moe despised nepotism,” Moskowitz recalled. “He had fired both of my sisters so I knew he wasn’t going to give me a break.”  

Thus it was not surprising that Moe had his daughter train as a book buyer for nearly seven years. Along the way he fired her a few times, too. But according to Moskowitz, “I just kept coming back.”  


Applying the Lessons of the Past  

These days, it’s tough to be an independent bookstore in the face of stiff competition from huge chains and Internet sites. Think of Meg Ryan’s character in the movie You’ve Got Mail, forced to close her shop when a big box moves into the neighborhood.  

But walk among the four floors that comprise Moe’s Books and you notice the diversity of its customers, which is reflective of a community unlike any other. The store serves book lovers of all types, from retirees who spend the entire day here to graduate students seeking inspiration for their dissertations.  

Indeed, where else can you find a $10,000 antique book and a 13-cent paperback in the same place?    

“Moe was adamant that books should be accessible to everyone,” noted Moskowitz. Against the recommendations of other retailers and business advisors, she continues Moe’s tradition of selling half-price mass-market pocketbooks alongside more expensive books. Three large walls—valuable real estate in a bookstore—are filled with these small books covering anything from the classics to science fiction.  

Moe was also one of the first book retailers to give out trade slips for people selling their used books. He was well-known for his generous price quotes, a reputation that Moskowitz has upheld.  

An astute book buyer herself, Moskowitz and her team add hundreds of used and out-of-print books to the store’s inventory daily. “In a way, Moe wanted his bookstore to be like a library…something everyone from all walks of life could enjoy and where they would want to come back,” said Moskowitz of her father.  

And like her father, Moskowitz is a well-respected manager. Many of the store’s 26 employees have been there for a decade or more, with the oldest employee completing his twenty-eighth year. Employees are hired for their knowledge and love of books, and many have specific experience in subjects as varied as design, architecture, photography, fashion and costume, European history and Asian art. Turnover is incredibly low because Moskowitz provides employees with full benefits—a rarity among bookstores of any size or type.  

Of her father’s management style, Moskowitz explained that “Moe gave people tremendous freedom and trusted them to do the right thing. He was a visionary, but he didn’t need to control every little detail. He could accept different perspectives and different ways of doing things.”  

Judging by the continued success of Moe’s Books, it is apparent that Moskowitz inherited the same qualities from her father. Moe, in turn, would surely be happy that he never succeeded in firing her.