Arts & Events

Moe’s Books Celebrates 50 Years

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 10:10:00 AM

Who could have foreseen, in 1959 when Moe and Barb Moskowitz founded fabled, semi-eponymous Moe’s Books, that the 50th anniversary would be celebrated in the Telegraph Avenue store from 3 to 8 p. m., Saturday July 11, at full gale force, with hula dancing by Hui Hula o na Pu’u i ka Noe, cake, balloons, door prizes—and The Duke of Windsor as host? 

Moe, if not in the Almanach de Gotha, was certainly used-book gentry, elevated from yeoman shelver to the manor. (He also once played that sublime, potty-mouth usurper, King Ubu, on the boards for the Living Theare.) But his surprise would certainly be tempered by discovery of The Duke’s full title—prefixed by “DJ.” 

So there’ll be helium and sweets, and dancing in the stacks. And for the first 50 guests, a commemorative bag designed by Gregoire Vion, featuring an image of Moe offering a toast.  

“We have survived and even enjoyed the turbulence of these exciting decades,” remarked Doris Moskowitz, Moe and Barb’s daughter. “We protested in the ’60s, relished hot new tunes from all genres in the ’70s and ’80s, ate wonderful food from the Gourmet Ghetto in the ’90s, and shared our green consciousness with everyone.” 

Sadly, the celebration won’t feature the namesake himself, the fragrance of his cigar or his triumphant roar, equally of glee and irritation. But Moe’s presence pervades the store, on all its four levels, with photos, placards, memorabilia—and the green consciousness of “Moe Money,” the tradeslips bearing a Lincoln—or Ahab—esque rendering of the Founder on its face. 

Moe, née Morris, hailed from Queens, via the East Village. A dropout from his own Bar Mitzvah, he was affiliated with the Young Communist League and various anarchist circles, protesting the Second World War as a pacificist, enduring arrest several times. 

Merchant Marine A. B., poolshark, housepainter, Good Humor man, standee at the opera, frequenter of jazz clubs, closet violinist (till a shipmate chucked it overboard), Moe brought his motley resumé west in 1955, bound for Berkeley, where he married Barbara Stevens, a founder of Walden School. The two opened The Paperback Bookshop on Shattuck; Moe made picture frames in the back room. 

In 1963, the store—which has had five locations—relocated to Telegraph Avenue, just as the scene there went into full swing. In the basement was a pool table, then used LP’s. Just as several other bookstores figured as predecessors or descendents of Moe’s (though mention of affiliation was not always welcome), so a few of the best-known music stores, small presses and poster businesses came through or out of the store on Telegraph. (One version of the tale, told by various players, is featured as an issue of Cometbus, on sale at the Moe’s counter.) 

Views of the store were featured in the 1967 Mike Nichols film, The Graduate (a still of the Ave. and Moe’s storefront, out the window of Cafe Med past Dustin Hoffman’s face, is behind the counter.) Moe was busted for selling “dirty books”—Zap and Snatch Comix, the Scum Manifesto, Ron Cobb cartoons—in 1968; in the ’70s he debated members of GASP (Group Against Smokers Pollution) and went to court over his right to smoke Macanudos and Upmanns in his own shop. (The judge ruled he could smoke behind the counter.) David LanceGoines designed a sign for the store: “Everything Not Prohibited Is Compulsory.” 

Moe died, appropriately enough for a devotee of Rabelais, April 1, 1997, at age 76, after a full shift at the store. April 21, a “Moe-Morial” hosted by the store, was declared Moe Day in proclamation by Mayor Shirley Dean: “Whereas, Moe probably would’ve laughed at a proclamation like this ...” The Cal Jazz Band played, Julia Vinograd read poetry ... and the store carried on. 

“You have to understand, I’m a businessman by default,” Moe once said, “ ... I could have been an employee, but I couldn’t have gotten along with an employer.” 

(A letter from—and reply to—the future anarchist bookseller, querying an article in Politics, 1944, by Dwight Macdonald, may be found online at, along with more Moe info and photo archives.) 

Maybe the best tribute came years before Moe trekked West, when Judith Malina of the Living Theatre said, “Moe Moskowitz, the anarchists’ Isis, is our Ubu.”