A History of Moe Moskowitz: A Life of Contradiction and Stardust
Thank you so much. Thank you especially
Truthfully, it is a pleasure to talk about Moe. I think about him all the time. We celebrate him, his strengths and his foibles, every day at his bookstore. And thank you all for coming to reminisce with me for awhile about a guy with a big enough ego to put his own face on a dollar bill.
He could be offensive, embarrassing, anarchistic, and to some people, filthy, but he seemed to be full of stardust like a movie star.
He was born in New York City in 1921.
“Larger than life,” they say about him. Now that he is gone it is impossible to name all the differences between normal people and Moe, but if I had to guess I’d say part of the difference was the stardust.
Maybe most people have some and there was just a special texture or tone or timbre to his. Maybe everyone does, but Stardust, the spotlight sparkle, the dreams and memories and hopes of Chaplin and Astaire and Rita Hayworth, the dreaming, the laughing, the show, the meaning, the laughter. . . and now we dance. This is what his stardust held.
He danced in Italian shoes. He tilted his cheek back, closed his warm brown eyes slightly and embraced the feeling of a song, of starlight, of memory.
My father was an artist. A performance artist. An entertainer. A joker and a King Lear. An opera singer. In the monologues that he performed at the counter or at you across the table at the Med he was direct, strong, absurd, hysterical, poignant, pointed, funny, and tender. He caught my attention by doing inappropriate and interesting things.
So absurd. He was simultaneously offensive and admirable.
In a singles ad in the ‘70s he offered to some lovely lady a line from “Just One of Those Things,” “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.” He desired romance. He desired stardust. Someone who could be swept up in his panache. Somewhere with them he’d laughingly wave his ringmaster hands and declare, “my dear, it was just one of those things.” Pretending to be light, then suddenly heavy. Pretending not to care, then lifting his warm face into the spotlight, showing his inner life. He could hold your attention to his thoughts and his thinking with a breath or the bits of cigar that were stuck to his lip.
In a tattered sport coat, needing a haircut, he drove his sports car like a matador.
That is only a part of who he was.
When Moe came to California he brought with him a wealth of experiences as a New York intellectual, political activist and observer, musician, actor, and artist.
He was an active member of both the unofficial avant-guard and the official Young Communist League .(Although he was asked to resign from the group because, in the story told by his younger brother, “Moe had too many opinions.”)
He was not enlisted during World War II due to a bad heart but he did work on a merchant marine ship. When a another sailor took his violin from him, saying “that’s terrible” and throwing it overboard, Moe gave up the violin forever.
As a young man he questioned everyone, including his heroes. In September of 1944, Moe’s letter to and response from Dwight MacDonald, the founder and editor of Politics, a magazine of outspoken and leftist editorial perspective, was published. Contributors to this magazine were his friends including Paul Goodman in whose play he had performed along with Jackson Mac Low.
Moe’s long letter is quite direct “Do you believe, as you seem to imply, that the New Deal must lead to fascism?”
Moe engaged in political activism. According to an article in the New York Herald on October 16, 1945, he was one of the pickets calling for the release from prison of conscientious objectors who, when arrested were unable to produce draft registration cards. His sandwich board read "Federal Prisons - American Concentration Camps.”
During this period he studied music, acting and painting passionately. He sold ice cream from a cart. He worked in a pocketbook factory in the Bronx.
He was asked to resign from Cooper Union where he studied art and design until 1955, for having a “low attitude” about following instructions and attending class. He dictated how his life was going to go.
In 1952, We know that in 1952 Judith Malina, the co-founder of the Living Theater, the performing troupe that shocked, outraged, and inspired audiences of experimental theater, cast Moe in the first American production of the intriguing play Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. When first performed in France, a riot started in the theater in response to the rude and unacceptable behavior of Ubu. Malina called Moe "The anarchists' Isis." "Moe Moskowitz was amazing at the first reading of Ubu,” she wrote in her diaries. “The production promises to be whole heartedly pataphysical."
Moe went on to incorporate some of these shenanigans into his own persona and into the book business. He enjoyed shocking people and nudging them out of the social customs. He encourage everyone to wonder why we are polite and to reassesses whether we mean what we say. Perennially obsessed with the truth, he often cornered people who would have rather gone on with their day.
His parents, Louis and Celia Moskowitz, were first-generation Eastern European immigrants who expected a great deal from the favored son. They were deeply disappointed by his “artistic” leanings. They, especially his father, saw him as failing to provide for himself or to live in a respectable way. Louis, one of twelve siblings, had worked hard all of his life to become a successful businessman. Beginning with an apple cart in New York City and living in the east village with hoards of other misplaced people, Louis strived to pull himself and his family up. He expected his son to work alongside him.
Instead he found a deadbeat intellectual who would rather talk than follow orders. That his son pursued music and politics as if they mattered must have deeply troubled him, especially after Moe gave up the classical violin for the theater. Although Moe’s mother Celia believed that he could do no wrong, his father saw him as a failure. Moe’s stories of returning once again to borrow money from his father, walking miles in the snow, only to be turned down again, describe a deep conflict between them. Moe imaged that his life was meaningful and important and his father saw it as a waste of energy, talent, and money.
His Bohemian lifestyle threatened his parents respectable middle-class aspirations.
When his mother paid off his landlord for the loft that he destroyed, for reasons known only to him and his friends, she must have felt as I do, that his cause was her cause. That his visions of how things should be were right somehow. Entertaining, fair, fun, vivid, real, meaningful, truthful, earnest. Her beautiful baby could do no wrong.
I have no proof of the things I say. My beloved crocheting grandmother died when I was little. Many of the things about Moe that I believe to be true are based on memories of anecdotes told to me by cousins or by Moe himself. Did he really walk out on his bar mitzvah in 1934, telling his parents, “I won’t do this. Tell you that you are wonderful people and that I am grateful? You are hypocrites. I am not.”
Around 1955 Moe moved out to California. Chances are that along with the lure of exciting friends and the growing gestalt towards the west coast, Moe may have worn out his welcome at home.
In the Bay Area only a short while, at a party in San Francisco, he found my mom. Newly divorced, Barb was on a blind date with someone else when she met Moe. She found his humor and passion undeniable. She took to him right away like a cause or a lucky star. I believe that he was lucky to have found her, but to him it was just one of those things. He worked at Versailles Framing before starting his own shop which offered framing services and book sales with Barb. Among friends from New York City who had moved to California, Moe found a lively environment.
Reminiscing when he died, Barb said, “I met Moe at a party. It was held in a house on Potrero Hill. Moe was into spontaneity, fun and unpredictability. I jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Moe ended up with his first store, the Paperback Bookshop in 1961. Publisher representatives warned Moe that it was too early to start a bookstore specializing in used paperbacks. Moe didn’t listen. Quality paperbacks flooded the used-book market, and Moe lucked out,” she explained. “It was fun seeing the store grow. It was also fun to prove them wrong.”
Being bankrolled by Barb, a Walden School founder and Stanford grad whose father, W. Wesley Hicks, invented the first electric heater, gave Moe the opportunity to take over the lease of a Japanese import store.
Over time Moe had bookstores in five locations: Paperback Bookshop was at 1984 Shattuck between 1959 and 1962; Ram Bam was at 2499 Telegraph between 1962 and 1964; Moe’s Books opened at 2476 Telegraph in 1964 and moved to 2484 Telegraph in 1969. In 1979 the store moved back to 2476 Telegraph where it remains today.
Right away Moe drew attention to himself and his ideas about what was right and how things ought to be. The trouble started with his idea of putting a news rack, which he called a kiosk, in front of his store. The Berkeley Review referred to it as “The Battle of the Kiosk.” Now Berkeley has a big idea about itself as a free speech and free expression icon, but Moe’s episode with the city council in 1961 speaks to a more provincial reality. He said, “Individual expression adds to a community. It does not diminish it.” “I am not asking for a Turkish Pavilion.” It is ironic that the only photos of his first store in Berkeley, the beginning of a colorful and important legacy, would be because he was in conflict with authority. Here he begins to embody the individual whose voice would be heard through the ‘60s of which we are so proud.
I also wonder how people responded to the sign hung in the window of the Paperback Bookshop, “Not Genteel but a very good deal.” The word Genteel is almost Gentile, the english word for goy or non-Jew. His openness about his Jewish heritage perhaps put a few people off but some, I believe, appreciated the playfulness with which he acknowledged his otherness. Many people have considered Moe and Moe’s Books to be “too scruffy” and full of used books. Moe’s assertion that used does not mean “used-up” and that different, unique, and what we nowadays call “multicultural,” actually is better, helped distinguish him from other booksellers at the time. Now, truthfully, Moe was not an especially devout Jew and he found fault with all organized religions, but he was proud of his cultural identity and shared it openly with everyone - often to their dismay.
In 1962, Moe introduced Bagels to Berkeley. The Berkeley Gazette gives him credit for bringing New York-style bagels with his group SAWBABA, the Society for the Advancement of Water Bagels in the Bay Area. They called him “Bagel Booster Moskowitz” for his Bagel Binge at Walden School.
Also in1962, Moe opened Ram Bam, named after the preeminent medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides who is referred to by the initial letters of his name (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon). Moe’s partnership with Bill Cartright quickly soured and sometime in 1964 Moe moved across the street to the building that Cody’s had just vacated.
The recently discovers film of the party in 1965 was made at this location. In it Moe seems to be playing an opposite character to Ubu as a man of the hour, so well dressed, but inappropriately so, once again drawing people into his absurdist world. When he came here in the mid-1950s he brought with him a wealth of passions, causes, and ideas, but the most pronounced of these values were irreverence and artistic, personal, and political freedom. This time capsule of a pre-freaky Berkeley of intellectual and jolly pursuits describes for me a pinnacle of absurdity and happenstance that brought so many interesting people into Moe’s orbit.
It turns out there was more craziness to come. Among my mother’s papers I found a list of items that had been confiscated from the store by police officers who arrested Moe for selling allegedly pornographic comic books and other obscene publications in1968. These included Zap Comics #2 and Scum Manifesto. Moe said, “I sold 350 copies of Snatch in three days. The comic books caricature sex,” he said, “but they’re clean stuff.” Bail was set $500.
Moe’s very good friends Don and Alice Schenker had been involved with comic book printing through their shop, the Print Mint. For many years Moe’s Books and The Print Mint shared an awning with posters on one side and books on the other.
Moe and Barb bought a building on Haight St. in an effort to expand over there. The Print Mint had a colorful poster shop there, but trouble with squatters and difficulty getting a business license for the bookstore led them to sell the building. Rumor has it that someone in San Francisco City Council didn’t like Moe.
It was in the spirit of freedom and collaboration that he supported the Free Speech Movement and People’s Park. My mom was especially proud that none of our windows were ever smashed during the riots and that Moe allowed protestors to come through his store and hide out there if the police were especially brutal.
Sadly, in People’s Park, founded by earnest radicals hoping to create a utopian world, Moe saw that it had quickly become a failed anarchist experiment that supported a few people. The drug culture that usurped the vision did not and does not support the people that made it, the citizens of Berkeley, or the Moe’s Books community. Moe is famous for having called the 1960s icon “Some People’s Park.”
He may never have believed that the park could work. I suppose that the individuals that he met seemed very naive. Compared to his experiences in New York City and all that he understood about the two World Wars and human nature, these idealists may have seemed liked lost children. When the dream was usurped by drug dealers and users he was sad but not surprised.
He dreamed of a utopian community with live music, low-cost housing, farmers’ markets. 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 be a part of an economy in which knowledge was a valuable commodity. He helped democratize literacy by making books more valuable and more accessible.
Punk anthropologist Aaron Cometbus was the first to delve into the history of Moe, the man responsible for the store he calls "Berkeley's intellectual center.” Why, he asks, did so many of the projects Moe supported turn out so well? How did Moe, the "wonderfully eccentric guy that sold books and played Lenny Bruce on his store stereo, … launch a whole galaxy of quirky stores" and affect the entire used-book industry?
He gave himself credit for the invention a superior game of stick ball, inexpensive framing, being right about politics and history and just about everything interesting but Moe is credited with the invention of fair trade for books, establishing percentages and paying against them, nourishing Shambhala Publishing, Reprint Mint posters and underground comics, Logos Books, Black Oak Books, Shakespeare & Company Books, Amoeba Music, Rasputin's, and an endless stream of writers and scholars. As Cometbus sees it, "each project" that Moe was involved with "evolved into a huge success, even if awkward at first.”
Even though he gave himself a lot of credit, most of it was earned.
Shambhala Publishing’s humble beginnings were actually a shelf within Moe's Books.
How did Moe cultivate others passions and allow them to thrive? He let them do what they wanted. He respected their autonomy.
He also supported the Berkeley Barb, in which he he advertised in it many times. He promoted Robbie Basho and Country Joe and the Fish whose albums he helped finance. He supported the fledgeling health-nut for Gypsy Boots by promoting his granola bars. Moe’s ads for The Contraception Puts You On, from Schlock records, produced by the Society for the Defense of Balding Intellectuals take up most of a page in the June 20, 1969 edition. On Moe’s birthday in the summer of 1969 the paper honored Moe with a custom astrological chart.
That year Moe’s Books & Records moved down the street to where the Reprint Mint is today. This is the the store that I grew up in. The music was in the basement. The children’s books were down there too under the stairs. There was a cozy subterranean feel and bins full of albums.
In 1977 conflicts with the city smoking ordinances erupted over his trademark cigars. He had always smoked and I was among a few who found it charming. Not everyone did. Visiting Moe at Moe’s involved the cigar. He held a few in his pocket and one in his mouth. Usually unlit while shelving, he held down on 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. Working the register he held the cigar in his hand while he rang people up. Often as was his custom he would stop the line of customers to talk about what was on his mind, politics or personal, and hold court, maybe lighting his cigar as you watched. He smoked maybe two or three good cigars a day. A Macanudo or Cuesta-Rey. When the ordinance passed, he continued to smoke. Some customers, or people passing by, would come in and pass judgment on him and his cigar and the ills of smoking. David Lance Goines, another local smoker who saw the contradictions, gave Moe his poster “Everything not Prohibited Is Compulsory” to display in the store. Moe was not actually arrested for smoking, just cited over and over again.
“If you're a social person, you live in the real world,” Moe said. "You learn to make compromises -- even in the face of unreasonable attitudes. In Berkeley, there's a problem of double standards. A person will tell you not to smoke cigarettes, but it's alright if they smoke dope. I think the contradiction is ridiculous.” This is even more true today…
In 1978 Moe and Barb broke ground for the New Building that had been designed to be Moe’s Books. The gold-plated shovel used to mark this occasion lived for years in the bookstore office at our home on Lewiston. Barb and Audrey Goodfriend, who retired from Moe’s when she turned 80, straightened out the books. My mom handled deposits, taxes, insurance and oversaw the bookkeeping until she died in 2001. Having very frugal tastes, she took very little money for her work and gave Moe a wide birth with almost total autonomy to run the store as he liked. They were equal partners in Moe’s Books. She had been his mostly silent partner for over 35 years.
When Moe returned to New York a successful business man, married to a lovely smart practical gentile with sweet little daughters, he was accepted by his family. Oddly, it was Barb who made him appear important in his devout father’s eyes. With her financial and emotional support he had finally become a man. Of course, he would never admit this. He always saw himself as having done everything on his own. He believed that people just followed him because he was right. He didn’t believe that he needed support. Sadly, as they began to build the building their marriage disintegrated. They separated when I was 12 but remained business partners until they died. The fact that she thought that he was “crazy like fox” is just damn good luck. Barb’s support made this whole chaotic experiment possible. In this new building Moe’s Books has been able to manifest the staffs’ collective vision of what a truly scholarly used bookstore ought to be. Moe created a unique business and jobs that people like to do. He gave people the freedom to do what they thought was right and it was the staff that created Moe’s Books as it is today.
The massive scale allows for huge deep sections in an exhaustive list of subjects. As a child I believed that Moe has read all of the books in his store, I though we walked around in his brain. As I have worked in the store I have come to understand that he read a few things deeply, but the staff at Moe’s has read many of them and written a few. The expertise of the people Moe hired is unbelievable. The hardworking schleppers are the secret. Moe’s genius was to let them tell him how it should be within the store.
He exclusively shelved art, literature, and pocketbooks basically everyday. He never went into the collectible store. A basement cart, a pocketbook cart, and a second floor cart. After holding court at the register, he’d have a snack, a small dry cookie, a black coffee from the Med, maybe a taco from Mario’s or a seltzer. He would throw books at a cart, in his operatic way. Sometimes he’d stack small books below big ones which is, if you can visualize it, the wrong way. Standing on the other side of his stacks or his cart, you had to protect yourself from the falling books and the rolling carts. He would retire to the manual labor of putting them away. There is physically demanding aspect to working with books. Obviously they can be quite heavy if you have a lot of them, but there is an art to holding them one at a time. The meditative quality of sorting and alphabetizing along with putting the books on the shelf where they go is immensely satisfying. Moe did this at a breakneck speed with a cigar in his mouth.
This meditative task needs to be done every day and Moe always did his part. These experiences left him an argumentative irreverent loyal thoughtful person who was willing to do an honest day’s work. His sage advice to me later was “find a job where you don’t mind or maybe even enjoy the boring bits. Then you are probably in the right place.” Taking this advice is how I started working for him at Moe’s.
So, as it turned out, he became the determined worker that his father had hoped he would be. He was a man that got up at 8:30 every day, got some exercise, which he learned to do after he had a heart attack in 1973, ate a healthy breakfast and went to work. Six days a week he went to the store, saw how things were, put away some books, made some decisions and went home again. That’s how you grow a business.
In the end of his life after a second dissatisfying marriage, he lived alone. In a small rather barren duplex. It was obvious that the bookstore was his real home. Even though he could be impossible to deal with, argumentative and even cruel, he was loyal, in his way. Sometimes he would take a customer’s side over a book buyer and people resented that. He also made room for complaints about him, but he said, “I reserve the right to be a jerk.”
He loved the staff. Even the people that he thought were “perverse” or just plain wrong, he saw them as part of his family. Rarely could he bring himself to fire anyone. Some people were given chance after chance after chance to come around. Once you were in his world, you were a member forever.
He had very few possessions, an oak table, a minimalist dresser, and big throne that my mom had commissioned for him. He had lots of records but mostly listened to music at the store. Monk, Miles, Mozart, Holiday, Bennett, Klezmer, big band, african ensembles, he was open.
He obsessively read the paper and watched the news. He worried over international politics. He went to the movies and Oakland Chinatown. He liked to discover treasure in an old greasy spoon.
When he died, he died in five minutes of heart failure in the early hours of April 1, 1997. He had developed diabetes the year before and had been hospitalized from pneumonia very recently but he was, as usual, at work at the store on the day he died. I had seen him the day before. We had all gone to lunch together with his grandson, a small baby at the time, just four months old. After lunch Moe took us to the movies which is something we all love to do. We saw Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar. Moe loved slapstick. He offered the baby popcorn in his whimsical way. Then we went to Saul’s Deli and shared a big pot of chicken soup. In front of his house on Regent St where we dropped him off, I told him that I loved him and he said, “I love you” which he always wanted me to know. That is the last time I saw him and I miss him every day.
He was a vastly interesting person and I have only touched a few topics around which he had exciting things to say. I wish he were here to say them, but I am grateful for this opportunity to share my enthusiasm with you.
He enjoyed shocking people and felt compelled to push them into thinking about their behavior. When I put a new sign on the “restroom” door, Moe made me take it down and replace it with a large Toilet sign that no one could miss. “You need to be direct. Call it what it is. Don’t talk around it. It is a room with a toilet. No one is powdering their noses.They are using the toilet. Be straight.” He offended many people by insulting their sensibility, but many others saw the sparkle in his eye even when he insulted their books. Or tossed them back at them over the counter. Honesty and fairness mattered most to Moe. Actually, his business model is based on it. Are these things profitable is a question we are still trying to answer to this day.
Moe brought something playful and smart to this community. He worked hard and honestly expressed himself. He was loyal to his friends and openhearted with strangers. Or he was narcissistic and inconsistent and impossible to manage.
He was helpful or he was abrupt. He was offensive and he was brilliant. He was tender or he was cruel but he was true. To quote Moe, “I’m eccentric” and “I reserve the right to be a jerk.”
He was full of contradictions and full of stardust…
Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to share with you some thoughts about my larger than life father, Moe Moskowitz.
A talk for the Berkeley Historical Society July 26th, 2015