Wednesday, July 1, 2009
The Mayor of Telegraph Avenue
Cody's is gone, Black Oak is gone, and so are most of the other bookstores that used to make Berkeley so unique. But Moe's Books, the used bookstore that started it all, is still going strong.
Moe's will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a party on July 11, the date of its founding.
By no coincidence, July 11 also would have been the 78th birthday of the man who founded the store, Moe Moskowitz, who died in 1997, as well as the 43rd birthday of his daughter, Doris, who has been running the place since his death.
Wherever he is, I'll bet Moe is kicking himself for missing the party, which will include cake, balloons and hula dancers with live ukulele accompaniment.
People think of Moe as the embodiment of the '60s, but actually, Moe hated the '60s - at least, its excesses. He looked kindly on anti-war protestors, but he drew the line at some of their over-the-top tactics. And he threw drug dealers out of the store long before it became fashionable.
Not for him the self-indulgent, self-righteous posturing of the Baby Boomers. Moe came from an earlier generation, a generation that prized words and ideas above all. He never could fathom why people wanted to befuddle their minds with drugs when there were so many good books to read, instead.
And if you loved good books, Moe's Books was - and is - the Mother Church. One of the reason other booksellers revered him was that he revolutionized the used book business.
He did it by the simple expedient of paying decent wages to his staff and giving fair prices to his customers for the books they turned in.
"If he ever caught us paying less than the book was worth, he'd hit the ceiling," said Bob Baldock, one of the longtime Moe's staffers who went on to found Black Oak Books. "Actually, it turned out to be smart business practice in the long run, but Moe did it because he thought of the customers as his family."
And they returned the sentiment. One customer recalled the time when she lost her wallet with a $88 Moe's credit slip in it.
"When I told Moe about it, he wrote out another $88 credit slip, just on my word," she said.
Moe was also a soft touch for the down-and-out. "Even when they knew they were scamming him, he'd still give them a handout," said longtime employee Matthew Wong.
He also let anyone off the street use the bathroom, which tended to make it a tad too funky for some people's taste.
One day, a female customer came up to the counter and returned the bathroom key in disgust, saying the toilet was too dirty to use.
Moe was nothing if not earthy, so he started teasing her about being uptight over something as "natural" as human waste.
"Let me ask you a question," the woman said. "Do you have any kids?
"Yes, two," Moe replied.
"Well," she said, "maybe if you had changed a diaper or two when they were babies, you wouldn't think it was so romantic!"
Then she wrote a check for her purchase and left. The signature on the check: "Ursula Le Guin."