When Ronald Cozzi opens up a book, he doesn't just look to see who wrote it or what it's about.
He wants to know if it's a first edition print – and how old it is. After all, that's not just Cozzi's business. It's his passion.
And now it's on the move.
The owner of Old Editions Book Shop in downtown Buffalo has spent his life buying, collecting and selling used and especially rare books – some of which date back more than 500 years.
Over the course of more than four decades in the business, Cozzi and his wife, Marilee, have accumulated a vast assortment of material spanning a wide range of subjects and authors – in particular, the game of chess. At one point, he had about 5,000 books covering that one subject - but sold them to make a down payment on a house.
"I started as a collector, like most book dealers," he said. "My hobby was collecting rare chess books."
Everything is for sale – for the right price, of course. Most recently, though, that includes the century-old building itself, which is under contract to developer Paul B. Iskalo.
So after more than 23 years at the corner of Huron and Oak streets, the Cozzis are moving their business to the suburbs, downsizing to a smaller one-story building at 954 Oliver St. in North Tonawanda.
That's no small task. Between the four-story building that they own on East Huron Street and additional storage space elsewhere, the couple currently has more than 500,000 books in their possession – more than they can even display in the retail shop's two floors.
Perhaps most notable are the rare book rooms on the second floor, where the antique furniture displays old Bibles, historic works of fact and fiction, French literature in medieval script, and a host of unusual collections from as far back as the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.
There's also the artwork, including Currier & Ives prints from the 19th century. And there's an assortment of papers, legal documents and old maps.
"You’re just a curator or caretaker for a period of time for these things," Cozzi reflected. "You’re taking care of them for the next person."
The Cozzis' three children and five grandchildren have their own careers and interests, and don't want to take on the bookstore. So the couple plans to continue catering to their customer base for a few more years – but in a space without stairs – before they retire completely.
"It’s more of a labor of love," he said. "It’s not something you can get really rich or make a lot of money at. You do it because it’s in your blood."
The new suburban site is the former home of Platter's Chocolates, which moved to the nearby Wurlitzer Building. But the future bookstore is much smaller than what the Cozzis have now.
So the couple is having a major sale this month to unload some of their inventory. All books under $20 are half off, while everything else – including artwork, accessories, furniture and fixtures – are at least 30 percent off.
The rest of the inventory is being moved to the new location, which will open for business on Nov. 1 as the old store closes. The third and fourth floors are already empty, and the couple and their six employees will transfer the rest over the next four months.
In the meantime, Iskalo Development Co. is buying the 28,000-square-foot complex – actually two buildings constructed in 1898 and 1950 – with plans to renovate the historic facilities and return them to mixed use. The Williamsville-based developer – who's had an agreement with the Cozzis since 2015 – is paying $1.71 million for the property, with the deal slated to close in February.
"It’s quite impressive, a lot of history here," Iskalo said. "Ron’s done a spectacular job of putting together lots of bits and pieces of history. So that takes time to relocate."
Iskalo wants to convert the upper two floors of the four-story red brick building – where the Cozzis have stored books – into four apartments. Each floor has about 3,600 square feet, yielding two large units per floor.
The developer will then "take some time and see what kind of interest there might be for retail or restaurant" for the first two floors, said Iskalo Executive Vice President David Chiazza. The second floor had been "grandfathered" for retail use for decades, prior to the bookstore. But "if for some reason, people only want the first floor, we can bring apartments down another floor," creating two more units and a first-floor retail or commercial space, Chiazza added.
As for the shorter two-story building next door, Chiazza said it offers "interesting" opportunities. That blond brick structure, which is the newer of the two buildings, has a two-bay loading dock on the first floor and historic offices upstairs, as well as the rare-book rooms.
So it could be redeveloped and rented separately from the main building, either with a commercial business occupying both floors or with two more apartments upstairs and a restaurant below, Chiazza said. The two overhead loading dock doors could also be switched to glass to create an indoor-outdoor patio.
"We’ll figure that out as we begin to roll out the marketing for the property," Chiazza said. "There are three to four different plans that we can execute."
Already, Iskalo said they've received "interest" in the first floor. "We'll be increasing our marketing efforts now as we go into the fall, with certainty for closing in the early part of 2019," he said. "That’s really how we’re playing it out."
From chess to books
While Old Editions will remain in business for a few years, the sale and relocation will largely mark the end of an era for the store, and the culmination of an unexpected career.
Cozzi started out not as a bookseller but as an amateur chess champion, capturing city, county and state titles, and winning the Armed Forces Chess Championship in Germany while he was in the U.S. Army. In all, he said, he won 17 tournaments, and even played chess legend Bobby Fischer on one occasion.
When he left the Army, he started collecting chess books, putting ads in the newspaper and attracting interest from all over the region. He eventually accumulated rare titles dating back to the 1700s. At one point, he owned one of only three copies of the first chess book that was printed in Italy in 1510; the other two copies were in British and French museums.
He also started going to the Walden Avenue flea market on weekends, buying and selling more books. In the process, he broadened his purchases, gaining a local reputation as a collector, and ultimately amassing about 15,000 titles. He even had 10 metal storage sheds to hold them all. "I had a nice little business going," Cozzi said.
But that wasn't his goal. Cozzi had graduated from Bryant & Stratton College in 1971, and wanted to get a full-time permanent job in the accounting department with the U.S. Postal Service.
Instead, for four years, he kept getting temporary postal jobs that never lasted more than 90 days, so he couldn't become a union member. "They called us 89-day wonders," Cozzi recalled. "They'd lay you off, and then rehire you in a couple of weeks."
Finally, when it looked like a permanent job was available, he sold his entire collection to another bookseller in Buffalo for 10 cents each because "I was so happy to be getting into the post office."
Back to books
But the job fell through, and he was left with nothing. So at the urging of others, he went back into books, this time for good. He rented a second-floor studio on Hertel Avenue, hung up a sign and rebuilt his business. He moved the store to Allentown, but quickly outgrew that space.
He bought a building at Main Street and Highgate Avenue, across from the Steer Restaurant and up the street from Talking Leaves Books, and stayed for 24 years. He rented part of the former Wagner Box warehouse from Harold Schechtman at Broadway and William Street, investing $50,000 into it, before Rite Aid Corp. bought the property three years later for a new drugstore and evicted all the tenants.
That's when a broker at Hunt Real Estate helped Cozzi find the Huron Street building. Constructed in 1898, it was at one time a boarding house, and also contained a Buffalo police station when officers still needed a stable in back for horses.
The building was later purchased in 1933 by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a nonprofit social services agency which occupied it for over 60 years and built the adjacent structure to handle deliveries of donations. The agency used the upper floors for storage for rags, clothing and recycling, but had its retail store on the first two levels.
The Cozzis bought it in 1995, invested more money into it over several years, and grew their business. But without a succession plan, the couple decided a few years ago that it was time to "semi-retire."
Iskalo was a natural buyer for the building. The developer already owns the fully leased Electric Tower, which it purchased in 2004, and the former Verizon service center that is now Big Ditch Brewing, as well as four other buildings and a parking lot – all in the same area. "It's really a nice, vibrant district," Chiazza said. "It's become a little neighborhood."
But what cemented the deal was the developer's flexibility. Where at least one other potential buyer wanted the store to vacate within six months, Iskalo gave the Cozzis time to find a new home.
The couple wanted to find a new home for their business in the city, with parking, but nothing was available. In the end, it took the Cozzis two years to find the 17,000-square-foot former Platter's facility. And even then, they also had to rent storage space in the Wurlitzer Building.
"We didn’t really know how long it was going to take to move this stuff. We needed to find a place. We didn’t have a building yet," Cozzi said. "They made it possible for us to sell this building and move out."