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A Brief History of Moe's

Moe Moskowitz of Moe’s Books was a loud-mouth beatnik and symbolic father to a generation. Moe embodied radical politics, radical theater, and radical bookselling, made being an intellectual look fun, and helped democratize literacy. If you were young in Berkeley in the 1960’s, you could have seen him hold court at his counter, sharing politics, opinions, and jokes both warm and offensive. I hope soon you will see why the San Francisco Chronicle once wrote “India has the Taj Mahal. Berkeley has Moe’s”.

When Moe Moskowitz came to Berkeley in the mid-1950s, he brought with him a wealth of passions, causes, and ideas. Most pronounced among these values were his love of irreverence and his belief in artistic, personal, and political freedom. He began selling books at low prices on Telegraph Ave in 1960.

It was in the spirit of freedom and collaboration that he supported the Free Speech Movement and the fight for People’s Park, allowing protesters to come into his store and hide out there if the police were especially brutal. Perhaps due to his support, none of the store windows were ever smashed during the riots.

However, the radical, utopian, anarchist ideal of People’s Park began to go downhill after the protests. Moe famously once remarked that it was “Some People’s Park”. He felt that the experiment had failed, and the vision of the idealistic youths had not come to pass.

In 1977, Moe’s conflicts with the city’s non-smoking ordinances erupted. He had always smoked cigars whenever he wanted, and though there were a few who found it charming, not everyone did. Some customers and passersby would pass judgment, coming into the store and telling him about the ills of smoking.

Yet however much they persisted, when visiting Moe at his bookstore the cigar was inescapable. He always had a few in his pocket and one in his mouth. While he shelved books, he usually kept it unlit, holding down the butt in the corner of his mouth. Often a piece of Cuban tobacco would stick and form a crust along the edge of his lip. While he worked the register he held the cigar in one hand while he rang people up with the other. When the mood struck him, he would stop the line of customers to hold forth on whatever was on his mind, sometimes lighting his cigar as he spoke. He smoked maybe two or three good cigars a day. Macanudos or Cuesta-Reys. When the ordinance passed, he ignored it and continued to smoke.

David Lance Goines, another local smoker who felt the ordinances were unfair, gave Moe a poster that said “Everything Not Prohibited Is Compulsory” to display in the store. People give Moe credit for the saying, but the credit belongs to T. H. White in The Once And Future King. I hate to take it away from Moe, but there’s no denying it this time. Another myth was that Moe was arrested for smoking in his store, but in fact he was just cited over and over again. But don’t tell anyone. Better to let the myth carry on.

Moe cultivated others’ passions and allowed them to thrive by letting them do what they wanted. He respected people’s autonomy and encouraged bold choices. He was arrested for selling allegedly pornographic comic books and other obscene publications in 1968. A list of items that had been confiscated from the store by police officers included Zap Comics #2 and Scum Manifesto. Moe said “I sold 350 copies of Snatch in three days. The comic books caricature sex, but they’re clean stuff.” His bail was set at $500.

A lifelong patron of the local arts and counterculture scenes, Moe also supported the Berkeley Barb, a weekly underground newspaper that was published from 1965 to 1980. It was one of the first and most influential of the counterculture newspapers of the late 1960s, covering the anti-war and civil rights movements as well as the social changes advocated by the youth culture. Moe, of course, offered the paper in the store, and he advertised in it many times. He also promoted local musicians Robbie Basho and Country Joe and the Fish, whose albums he helped finance. He supported the fledgling health-nut Gypsy Boots by promoting his granola bars.

Since its inception back in the heyday of the Beatnik era, Moe's Books has managed to become more than just a great bookstore—it has achieved the rarified status of a beloved landmark institution as well. Situated just four blocks from the University of California campus, Moe's has managed to mirror the often turbulent and triumphant times that have come to epitomize all that is exciting and unique about Berkeley.

Founded in 1959 by Moe Moskowitz and his wife, Barbara, the original site of the store was a small shop on Shattuck just north of University Avenue. He moved the store up to Telegraph Avenue in the 1960s, right in the middle of the Free Speech Movement and the famous anti-war demonstrations that put Berkeley on the political map. You can see a miniature time capsule of this time in the film New Mo’Cut. The footage of the opening night party of Moe’s on Telegraph shows people enjoying the fun and the intellectual pursuits before the turbulence of the late ’60s. The jolliness of the evening suggests the pinnacle of the absurdity and coincidence that brought so many interesting people into Moe’s orbit and Moe’s Books.

Moe Moskowitz began a revolution of his own, one that altered the landscape of the used book business. He set policies assuring customers of the highest prices paid for used books his trade policy. The Berkeley Historical Society commemorated Moe’s Books as “a pioneer of giving honest, fair prices by establishing a fair trade policy of offering cash and higher value in trade for used books” in a beautiful plaque in 2013. The trade policy at Moe’s is, in our own utopian way of establishing our own currency and working beyond government control. An underworld, of sorts.

The staff was always trained to keep the stock of books fresh, interesting, and of the highest quality possible. They were given the personal freedom to do this as they saw fit. The vision of the store has always been to make knowledge accessible to everyone. In Berkeley, books and knowledge feed you and Moe’s Books made that sustenance accessible to anyone who has curiosity. Having read one book, you are a part of our economy. Knowledge is power at Moe’s.