Q&A: Keeper of Berkeley bookstore legacy

Name: Doris Jo Moskowitz
Age: 50
City: Berkeley
Position: Co-owner, Moe’s Books

Doris Jo Moskowitz

J:
Your book about your father, “Radical Bookselling: A Life of Moe Moskowitz,” has just been published, a year after the release of the documentary “New Mo’ Cut.” What makes Moe’s stand out from other bookstores?

Doris Jo Moskowitz: The book is about Moe himself and his vision. He wanted to democratize literacy through selling used books. He had the trade policy that he won’t only give you a nickel, he’ll give you a fair amount. He saw customers as part of his economy. There really weren’t a lot of other stores doing that. He considered it an experiment. He also gave his employees freedom and respect. The store is still a reflection of what a great bookstore should be.

Moe’s Books, founded in 1959, is such a Telegraph Avenue institution that the San Francisco Chronicle once wrote: “India has the Taj Mahal, Berkeley has Moe’s.” To you it was just a place you spent time as a kid. Did you always know you would run it some day?

My mom and dad both put a lot of energy into the business, but I fell into working at the bookstore. I have a degree in English and music, and when I got out of college, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and told my dad he should give me a job. He didn’t like the idea of nepotism, and he didn’t want the employees thinking that someone had weird authority that wasn’t based on book knowledge, but I convinced him to hire me since I had worked in libraries and cared a lot about books. I trained to buy used books over the counter, which is a really fun job. You have to know a little about a lot of things. So I was in training to do that when my father died in 1997 and I fell into the position I’m in.

Cody’s Books, Shakespeare & Co. and Moe’s used to be within a couple of blocks of each other. How is it that Moe’s is the only one still standing?

I think it’s partly because of the used books and the staff devotion, but also because we’re family-owned, woman-owned and independent, and there’s no giving up. This legacy is really important to my family, and the staff are really passionate about it. The manager has been there since the store was 10, and the 27 people who work there are really devoted to it. With used books you can be more creative and are not beholden to the publishing industry. Since we sell out-of-print books, we’ll always have more titles. There’s also our size. Our store is huge, comparable to Powell’s in Portland and the Strand in New York.

 

Doris and Moe Moskowitz in 1976


Your dad was the son of Eastern European immigrants. His father, Louis, began with an apple cart on the Lower East Side and became a successful furrier, and he didn’t understand his son’s artistic leanings. Louis considered his son a “deadbeat intellectual” and thought his bohemian lifestyle threatened his own middle-class aspirations. Is that why Moe moved to Berkeley?

He had been an actor and political activist and studied art and was interested in all kinds of things, and at that time a lot of intellectuals were moving to California. You could start fresh and do something different here. He didn’t have much money, but he met someone here who knew something about publishing and thought it was a good time to get into selling used books.

Your father is often described as a “character,” someone who supported progressive causes, enjoyed debating history and politics in the store and telling stories. He told you he walked out on his own bar mitzvah — do you believe it?

Somewhere in the ceremony or as it ended, he went to his parents and told them that he couldn’t do it. I do believe it, but it’s hard with someone who tells a lot of stories to know what the real truth is.

The Berkeley Gazette gave Moe credit for his early attempt to bring New York-style bagels to Berkeley with his group known as the Society for the Advancement of Water Bagels in the Bay Area. And he was dubbed “Bagel Booster Moskowitz.”

He always had other ideas for businesses. In North Beach, there was a strip club called the hungry i, and he wanted to open a deli around the corner called the Hungry Oy. He never did that, but he was always interested in bagels and food.

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Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."