What is it about that aroma of paper and ink that makes bookstores so incredibly inviting? The shelves filled with endless wonders, far off lands, historical significance, all entice us to explore what each unique bookstore has to offer. This month, our focus is on one incredibly special independent bookstore, Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California.
Established in 1959, in the epicenter of the northern California beatnik era, Moe’s has experienced some of the most tumultuous periods in our modern history. Nevertheless, the locally owned store has weathered it all. Here to talk with me today is Doris Moskowitz, Moe Moskowitz’s daughter who still runs the store today.
Dru: Good morning Doris, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions.
Doris: Thanks for reaching out. I hope I’m helpful.
Dru: So tell me, during this crisis, how can people get books from you?
Doris: This is a surreal time. From this tsunami of bad news and chaos, Moe’s Books has adjusted to all the random changes at the last minute and pivoted quickly to just selling from our website. To our catalog which includes 30,000 titles from our West Oakland warehouse and our rare book room, we added a link to new books as well through bookshop.org just yesterday. The internet has generated about 20% of our income for years, but during this crisis we will have to squeak by with only that income until we reopen after April.
Dru: It’s wonderful you have been able to continue getting books to customers despite all of this chaos, I know I would go stir crazy without new things to read. Sadly, I’m no longer local to Berkeley, can people from all over the country shop with you right now?
Doris: For our many wonderful customers who live out of the area, the Internet has been a resource for them and it is up and running smoothly now. On some services, Abebooks or Amazon, you can find our books listed as Telegraph Avenue. That’s us as well.
Dru: In addition to books, are there other items you have for sale?
Doris: We have our posters, mugs, t-shirts, sweatshirts and gift cards available now. There you can also find videos and podcasts.
Dru: That’s good to know. I think one way to survive quarantine and stay home orders is to use a new coffee mug each day. I certainly have a few to choose from, but more mugs never hurt anyone right? So, what about when life returns to normal – what events will be on the horizon?
Doris: I am really looking forward to May when we can get back to normal. Being mostly closed like this is very difficult for everyone here.
Dru: Any events planned?
Doris: Soon, I hope, we will have our first ZOOM event with the Author of Berkeley Noir. Readers can see what events we have coming up by visiting our Facebook page.
Dru: That’s excellent! I’ve watched dozens of celebrities take to live performances, share cooking lessons on Instagram… We are lucky to have the thread of technology to keep us all together during this very isolated time. What are some memorable visitors that have come through the store?
Dru: Poetry is actually what brought me into Moe’s Books again after years of being away. I was a Creative Writing student at San Francisco State and wanted to find some poetry books that really resonated with me, then I also attended some readings. To be in the room with the creative energy these authors possess is invigorating. I know once this current chaotic situation passes, students will return to readings. They were an integral part of my education. Has Moe’s ever experienced anything like this in all of its years?
Doris: I remember that there were problems on The Ave, Riots, protests, etc and Moe, my dad, would have to come up to the store to sort things out. Otherwise, no. This is unbelievable.
Dru: What about over the past few decades, how has the store and the neighborhood changed?
Doris: Well, actually, as hard as change is for me (and I am a very sentimental person) I really like the changes I have seen in the last few years. The peace sign bike racks and the murals. I miss Silver Ball, the arcade that was up here when I was a kid, but things change. I need to let that happen (as long as Moe’s stays the same).
Dru: During Moe’s existence on Telegraph Hill, Berkeley has seen political stand-offs, teach-ins, walk-outs, unarmed students shot by police, apartheid movements… Through it all – relentless passion in the face of everything. One New York Times article called Moe a, “natural-born agitator.” Looking at the unwavering success of the bookstore, would you agree?
Doris: Moe’s passion for other people’s freedom was revolutionary. As hard as it is for me to deal with the autonomy of the staff and the chaos of the store itself, I think this plays a big part in our success. Did I answer that question?
Dru: Beautifully, yes. Do you think gusto is needed to create something as enduring and praised as Moe’s Books?
Doris: Bookselling is not for the timid, that’s for sure. We do love books with gusto. That’s true.
Dru: What does the future hold for the store? What would you like to share with readers?
Doris: Enjoy Life. Read More Books. But while you’re stuck at home, can you organize your shelves and pack up your extra books to bring to us? We will need a ton when we reopen in May. Mari Kondo would be proud of you!
Dru: Asking me to part with my books is like asking me to have coffee without a mug. But for Moe’s Books? I will absolutely give it a try.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me Doris, it has been a pleasure. We will all get through this thing together and hopefully come out stronger in the end.