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Collection of 300-plus books of Buffalo dating to 1813 seeks benefactor

The treasure sits tucked away in a corner office of a sprawling four-story downtown building. They are biographies, city directories, religious pamphlets, guidebooks, maps, even spelling and arithmetic primers. And they paint a story of a booming Buffalo in the first half of the 19th century.

This collection of more than 300 rare books and pamphlets that date from 1812 to 1875 reveals a crucial historical period that covers the burning of Buffalo in late 1813, the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the rapid growth of a municipality that blossomed from a village to an incorporated city.

This was a time when Chippewa Street, and later North Street, formed the city’s northern boundary. During that same period, Buffalo’s population skyrocketed, from 1,508 in 1810 to about 135,000 in the mid-1870s, not long before the Pan-American Exposition.

“These books tell us what life in Buffalo was like in those early decades of expansion,” said Ronald L. Cozzi, the current caretaker of that collection. “It tells the history of our beginnings. What do we have from that time that gives us a feel for the people of Buffalo in the early 1800s? This is the only thing we have. This is why we want to preserve this, hopefully in a local institution.”

The collection, now sitting inside Cozzi’s 38,000-square-foot Old Editions Book Shop on East Huron Street, was the almost-lifelong passion of Eugene Musial, a local bookstore owner and historical collector who died four years ago at 94.

Musial’s family has allowed Cozzi and his wife, Marilee, to store and organize the collection and look for someone to buy it.

Cozzi, himself a longtime Buffalo rare-book buyer and seller, is looking for some civic-minded benefactors who will help keep that collection where he believes it firmly belongs: in Buffalo.

These rare books, some already have celebrated their 200th birthdays, would fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars if sold individually. But Cozzi hopes to find benefactors willing to pay $90,000, enough to help pay a fraction of Musial’s grandchildren’s college costs plus Cozzi’s commission.

The collection then would be given to an institution that would display the rare books in an environment-controlled space, presumably with its own curator. Among those that have expressed interest have been the University at Buffalo, the Library of Congress and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., Cozzi said.

He is passionate about the books staying in Buffalo.

“It would be very difficult, almost impossible, to duplicate this collection, and it would cost a fortune,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these books and pamphlets to remain in Buffalo, where they belong.”

The books, in various ways, tell the story of early 19th-century Buffalo, including why and how people arrived here, whether it was by steamboat or stagecoach, and how they lived, as recounted by their maps and travel guides, their almanacs, city directories and church histories and even their cultural institutions’ annual reports.

“This is a reflection of Buffalo’s early beginnings to its tremendous growth through the 1870s, primarily due to the development of the Erie Canal in 1825,” Cozzi said. “We had boats coming in here daily, with some people settling here and others moving west.”

Musial’s collection, inside a controlled environment of 65 to 70 degrees and 55 to 60 percent humidity, can be described as eclectic, with only one unifying theme.

“He didn’t care what the subject was,” Cozzi said. “He focused on books that were printed in Buffalo.”

Cozzi also is caring for another 300 books or so in what he calls Musial’s “B Collection,” made up of books that aren’t as rare and not in as good condition. Those are available for sale, per item.

A used-book enthusiast who has operated his shop in five locations over the last 39 years, Cozzi walks around the small office housing the collection, deftly pulling out volumes with the delicate care of a nurse in a newborns’ nursery.

One of the collection’s six main categories is the story of Mary Jemison, known as the “white woman of the Genesee,” who spent most of her life living among Senecas.

Musial’s own obituary in 2012 highlighted his collection of Jemison artifacts, including a signed copy of her 1833 last will and testament. Her remains later were transferred to the old Glen Iris Estate in Letchworth State Park.

The earliest Jemison item in the collection dates to 1824, containing this lengthy descriptive title: “A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, who was taken by Indians in the year 1755, when only about 12 years of age, and has continued to reside amongst them to the present time.”

The book, written by James E. Seaver, also describes how he wrote it: “Carefully taken from her own words, Nov. 29, 1823.”

Another category is the large collection of Steele’s Guide Books, starting in 1834. One is titled “A Manual for the Use of Visitors to the Falls of Niagara.”

Visitors from the east came here via steamboat or stagecoach to visit Buffalo and then take a side trip to the falls. Long before the Thruway, one such book lists the Buffalo to Albany distance as 363 miles by the canal and 298 miles on a stagecoach.

Cozzi handled one such guidebook from 1835, the first year folded-up maps were included.

Why would guidebooks, given out probably by the hundreds, be so hard to find?

“A lot of copies would be tossed away, or they’d take the map out,” he explained. “So to find a book in this condition with a map is a coup.”

Other interesting books in the collection include the earliest item, a wood-covered 1812 book about “a noble French lady” converting to Protestantism; an 1828 “Directory for the Village of Buffalo”; an 1832 city directory that includes a separate page of the “Names of Colored People,” listing about 60 of the first free black men here; an act to incorporate the City of Buffalo in 1832; the 1837 annual report of the Young Men’s Association of Buffalo; an 1840 journal kept by a man imprisoned in the Jail of Erie County for libel; and the first Buffalo Medical Journal, published in 1846.

As Cozzi, a historian and book collector, pulled out the various volumes, he seemed even more committed to preserving these tomes for future generations of Buffalonians.

“They’ve been in Buffalo since 1812,” he said of the books. “They need to stay here.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com