The Legend of Moe’s Books

It remains a landmark in Berkeley, one of America’s very best bookstores and worth an epic detour to visit.

The San Francisco Chronicle once put it this way: “India has the Taj Mahal. Berkeley has Moe’s.”
Credit Carlos Chavarría for The New York Times

 

 

By Dwight Garner

 

 

Moe Moskowitz, the co-founder of Moe’s Books in Berkeley, was known for a lot of things: his omnipresent cigars; his appalling dancing (sometimes to Cab Calloway on the store’s turntable); his political activism; and especially the way he held court at the cash register, riffing like Jackie Mason at a Friars Club podium.

The more you know about Moskowitz (1921-1997), who opened the store in 1959, the Beatnik era, with his wife, Barbara, the more you want to know. He was brusque and a bit of a slob. He drove his sports car like a maniac. One of his former employees has written about his “famous flatulence.”

He was a natural-born agitator. Born in New York City, he realized he missed certain eats while out West. He’s been given credit for bringing real bagels into Berkeley after founding SAWBABA, the Society for the Advancement of Water Bagels in the Bay Area, in 1962.

 

 

I spent a fair amount of time in Moe’s looking through his bargain, used books. Snyder, Patchen, Borges, Ram Das, LeGuin, Heinlein, Trungpa, ceramics. I’d go up the block to Cody’s to sit on the floor & page through their fine selection of out-of-my-reach art books.

The one photo of Moe pricing a stack of tomes, always in light pencil, cigar in mouth is how I remember him. I was always a little intimidated coming up to the counter.
It’s hard to believe now that a place like Berzerkeley in that crazy time actually existed. Across Telegraph from Moe’s was the headquarters of Messiah’s World Crusade. Through their satellite commune in the Sierra, with the aid of LSD, they were able to communicate  with Martian residents. 
How’s a kid growing up at the mall going to hear the good news “Acid, speed, mescaline”.
Go Bears.
Jerry Oyama

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