Berkeley books for the Berkeley reader, Holidays 2016

Steven Finacom
Friday December 16, 2016 - 07:26:00 AM

If you are looking for a last minute holiday gift for one of Berkeley’s intelligent readers, or winter time reading for yourself, here are three suggestions. All are books published earlier this year. They are also all unconventional and extensively illustrated local histories by local authors.

Radical Booksellling: A Life of Moe Moskowitz, Doris Jo Moskowitz, 2016. $18.95.

San Francisco’s Exposition Year: the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, Anthony Bruce, Trifoil Press, 2016. $39.95.

Quirky Berkeley, Tom Dalzell. Heyday Press, 2016. $15.00. 

Book One: Radical Bookselling 

Doris Moskowitz, the second-generation proprietor of legendary—and still living—Moe’s Books, put together this immensely insightful and thoughtful love letter / memoir of her late father, Moe, and how he came to create and operate the Berkeley establishment.  

Much of the text is developed from a talk Doris gave to the Berkeley Historical Society about her father. (She also sang some of his favorite songs.) There are also essays by friends and employees of Moe, and many, many, photographs and graphic materials collected by Doris. 

This is a poignant memoir not only of the life of an original man, but the development of such an important piece of Berkeley character and culture. There is a great deal in this slim volume, from his childhood and difficult relationship with his father and eventual move across the country from New York, his early acting career, how Moe nurtured other local businesses, his impact on standards in the used book trade, and his involvement with alternative schools in Berkeley.  

A primary impact, according to Doris: “he put a lot of effort into creating his own barter system with books in which one did not need to have much money to b e a part of an economy with knowledge. He helped democratize literacy.” 

It’s also fun and illuminating reading, with descriptions of his days at sea (when a fellow sailor thought he played so badly he threw Moe’s violin overboard), to classes at Cooper Union (“where he had a ‘low attitude’ about following instructions and attending classes about subjects that may have bored him”), to his early business days in Berkeley battling with City bureaucracy over a newspaper kiosk on the sidewalk.  

The book is full of “vintage Moe”. Moe, speaking to a younger Doris when she felt he was embarrassing her with his somewhat messy public eating habits: “Why do you care what people think of you? You need to watch that.” (“He spoke often of the social ills caused by such things as ‘polite manners’ and what people ought to do”, Doris writes. “He wanted to know why.”)  

Moe to Doris when she put a “restroom” sign up in the store: “You need to be direct. Call it what it is. It is a room with a toilet.” (And that’s indeed one of the things I most appreciate about Moe’s. It serves the whole customer; there’s a real toilet you’re welcome to use, up on the third floor. Get a token at the counter. Moe’s is not a “sorry we don’t have one of those, why don’t you try the restaurant down the street…” place. Last time I needed to use the toilet there I stood outside until the door opened, and Julia Vinograd came out. I was using a potty for poets!) 

And Doris about Moe: “he enjoyed shocking people and nudging them out of the usual social customs. Her encouraged everyone to wonder why we are polite and to reassess whether we mean what we say. Perennially obsessed with the truth, he often cornered people who would have rather gone on with their day.”  

Isn’t that last sentence, in a nutshell, a classic metaphor for Berkeley life, encompassing both the appealing and the annoying? 

The first thing I ever bought in Berkeley was a book at Moe’s during a first visit there in the mid 1970s. This was when the store was in the next-door space that would later become The Reprint Mint. I was on a very quick visit to town with an older brother, a Cal student, who helpfully suggested Moe’s as a place where those living in suburbia could make an excursion to find interesting books. 

My ride was waiting and I had only had a few minutes; I devoted them to the science fiction and fantasy section in the subterranean rear of the store where I found and bought a paperback “Dragonflight” by Anne McCaffrey based solely on the cover illustration. I recently rediscovered it while going through a box of old books at home; it was the first of what are probably thousands of books I would buy at Moe’s. I probably paid Moe himself my 30 or 40 cents at the front counter, although I don’t remember. 

I do remember two typical later Moe’s experiences that happened over and over when I would stop by the store after I came to live in Berkeley. Fortunately, for many years it was on my walk route home from work.  

The first recollection (which I recently mentioned in another Planet article) was with Cashier Moe, who always seemed growlingly unwilling to freely part with a plastic bag, no matter how high my stack of bought books.  

The second memory involved browsing as Shelver Moe worked nearby adding newly bought books to their proper sections, which Doris reports he did every day. He would slowly shove a cart overloaded with books along the aisle, cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth. As the decisive “thwap!, thwap!, thwap!” of books being methodically inserted onto the shelves grew nearer, I would inevitably realize I was being approached by an irresistible force. No immoveable object, I would give way, no matter how interesting the book or section I was currently examining. 

Moe’s is full of affordable treasure. It’s the best used book store I’ve ever visited. Great, fair, prices, and some of the best turnover of stock. And new books, too, and odd little things you find in the corners, like a rack of Ashleigh Brilliant’s day-glow “Potshot” cards which were a serious form of local cultural communication in the 60s and 70s. (I once unsuccessfully used a series of them to try to re-kindle a failed friendship.) 

This book is about that place and, the person who created it. The store, and the book, are essential pieces of Berkeley history. Buy it at the bookstore itself, on Telegraph Avenue. $18.95. And shop at Moe’s in 2017! 

Book Two: The 1915 Exposition 

The great-grandparents and grandmother of Berkeley native Anthony Bruce were living on Benvenue Avenue in Berkeley in 1915 during the PPIE. Fortunately they, and later generations of the family, saved innumerable artifacts from that era including personal letters, photographs, and mementos.  

Anthony Bruce is the longtime Executive Director of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA). He put together this wonderful and sympathetic book about the PPIE, using both the family materials and PPIE items he researched and gathered as the Exposition Centennial approached. 

The result is not only a loving look at how the life of one Berkeley household intersected with the great exposition which he accurately calls “the grand social center for the entire San Francisco Bay Area” in 1915, but a solid contribution to published scholarship about the PPIE. It’s also a really handsome book, filled with color illustrations and laid out by Bruce himself.  

The book divides into three sections.  

First, there’s a roughly chronological account of the PPIE, intermittently seen through family eyes and letters as they get their advance ticket books, join the throngs on Opening Day, help other locals “receive” visitors at the California Building, entertain the Japanese Commissioner to the Exposition at a Berkeley dinner party, and visit various attractions, shows, and special events throughout the year.  

You’ll join “Nannie” as she cajoles Exposition gardeners into giving her bloomed-out tulip bulbs to bring back to her Berkeley garden, writes to her business traveling husband about the latest doings, savors exotic pineapple at the Hawaiian pavilion, and slips inside the guard rail at the Pennsylvania State Building to get a family picture taken next to the Liberty Bell. 

The last section is in the form of an extensive walk through the PPIE grounds and buildings, with many illustrations and quotes from period guidebooks and descriptions. This is really excellent stuff, since it pulls together in a very coherent, readable, and fully illustrated way the explanations and insights of numerous contemporary reviewers. 

In between, Bruce provides detailed bibliographical descriptions of several of the key guidebooks, most of which were written by Berkeley residents and scholars, some of them family friends. 

If you want to “remember” the PPIE in fine form, add this book to your library along with Laura Ackley’s Jewel City centennial history of the Exposition. 

You can buy the book online through Amazon ($39.95), and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association also has a few copies for sale at its office. 


Book Three: Quirky Berkeley 


If you follow online writing about contemporary Berkeley, you’ve probably seen one of Tom Dalzell’s extensively illustrated articles about the street-visible art oddities and unusual cultural customs of Berkeley.  

This is a really fun little book by Heyday, published earlier this year, that captures many of those experiences and objects in print.  

Since there is so much on line about Tom and “Quirky Berkeley”, including his own extensive website, I won’t write more, except to say visit his website, quirkyberkeley.com and definitely get the book. It’s perfectly sized to be a stocking stuffer. But don’t buy it on Amazon. Get it instead at some Berkeley bookstore you love, and want to see survive. That way you’ll help the quirk continue.