Moe's Books, the Well-Known Local Vendor of Used Volumes,
Commemorates a Half Century of Business
By Arielle Little
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Cavernous yet towering, world-renowned yet familiar, Moe's Books on
Telegraph is a landmark in the Berkeley community. Sporting a
red-and-white striped canopy and a sign announcing "four floors of
books," it is one of the few remaining independent bookstores near
campus. A destination for book lovers from around the globe, the
store will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding this
Saturday, July 11.
Moe's Books is a place where books are more than a commodity. People
go to chain bookstores when they need to buy a certain title. People
go to Moe's Books when they need to lose themselves between crammed
shelves, discover a passion for an obscure subject or search for
hidden treasures. "I am always surprised by what I find here. I never
come here with any intentions, and I always end up buying something,"
said customer Eric Heinonen, a visual culture student from UC Santa
Cruz who frequents the shop about once a month. "It is definitely my
favorite bookstore in the country, or even in the world."
A native of Queens, New York, Moe Moskowitz and his wife Barbara
opened the first Moe's Books on Shattuck Avenue in 1959 but soon
moved the store to its present neighborhood. A true eccentric,
Moskowitz became a legendary figure in Berkeley. He could often be
found behind the counter, smoking his characteristic cigar, loudly
singing his favorite songs or examining the books that a potential
seller had brought in for inspection, according to John Wong, an
antiquarian expert who has worked at the store for 30 years.
Standing next to a basket of Moe's old pool balls on the fourth
floor, Wong remembers his longtime friend fondly. "He never read, but
he could spontaneously quote all of these authors," Wong said. "It
was a source of pride for him to come 3,000 miles to the other coast
and be a commercial success."
That pride was legitimate, and the selection of new and used books at
Moe's Books continues to be impressive. There is an entire bookshelf
of chess strategy literature, as well as nearly 10 different versions
of Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."
When Moe passed away in 1997, his daughter Doris Moskowitz took
ownership of the store. Doris works in the store most days during
regular business hours. Sitting in one of the sun-flooded corners of
the fiction section one afternoon, she recounted a childhood memory
of growing up in Moe's Books.
"When I was little there was a record department in the store, and it
was right next to the kids section," she said, smiling. "I remember
being in the store and when my mom would read to me, it would have
this amazing soundtrack. Whether it was Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix,
when I remember it, I remember thinking that I couldn't believe my
good fortune to be in this exciting place."
But as much as the 50th Anniversary bash planned for Saturday is
meant to celebrate the history and tradition of Moe's Books, it is
also meant to celebrate the employees who make it a real bookstore
experience. "Saturday is about the people who work here," Moskowitz
said. "My father's legacy is the 27 jobs he created. It is the
employees that make (Moe's Books) work."
The employees have an extensive knowledge and passion for books, and
their expertise contributes to the store's close-knit community. "The
reason the books are all so awesome is that the (employees) are
constantly referring to each other and constantly culling over the
collection," Moskowitz remarked.
The store has also become a center for discussion. "You can have an
idea and you can come here and explore it with all these other
thinkers," she said. Moe's Books has a history of being not only a
place for scholarly discourse but also a safe haven. In the 1960s,
Free Speech Movement and Vietnam War protesters sought refuge from
the police in the store, according to the shop's Web site. Today,
Moe's remains a space for the inquisitive.
Among the curious patrons who weave in and out of the shelves
nowadays, a few said they find Moe's Books more satisfying than
online shopping and go to the store simply to enjoy browsing the
ever-changing selection of titles. "I thought I'd have a good chance
of finding something here," said Justine Mendoza, a graduate of the
California College of the Arts. "I'd rather buy something here than
In the past 50 years, Moe's Books has become part of the intellectual
culture surrounding the university and in the city of Berkeley as a
whole. A favorite haunt of students, residents and bibliophiles from
all walks of life, Moe's Books will remain a Berkeley tradition.
"For the population of Berkeley, books are not a luxury, they are a
pleasure," Moskowitz said. "And going to bookstores is a social experience."