Buffalo by the book:
Western New York’s rare books collections
By Lisa Kane and Jay Pawlowski
Behind tightly locked doors, in climate-controlled vaults, and under Halon fire protection (never sprinklers!), treasures of history, art, and human achievement exist under the watchful eyes of curators and rare book dealers.
Standing in a warm, softly lit room on the second floor of Old Editions Book Shop, owner Ronald Cozzi holds a copy of a collection of correspondence by Samuel Johnson. The book was printed in 1860 and bound in the 1930s by John Grabau, Buffalo’s most celebrated book binder.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind. It’s a work of art,” he says, noting that the Grabau binding makes the book extremely valuable. “This is a monument to this man’s greatness.”
Some tomes, like the one in Cozzi’s hands, are just too valuable to be kept in general circulation. Collectors and curators alike share a profound respect for their wisdom, their artfulness, the history still breathing in their pages.
Whether it’s Shakespeare or Stephen King, Huck Finn or Harry Potter, many things can make a book rare or collectible, including its age and condition, the author and/or title, its provenance (who owned it in the past), if it is a limited edition or autographed, who did the illustrations, and even the accompaniment of its original dust jacket.
There are many private rare books collectors in Western New York. Here’s a look at some of the larger institutional collections and one dealer’s collection.
Buffalo & Erie County Public Library
The library’s rare books collection is made up of more than 30,000 titles covering all possible subject matter. Elaine Barone, manager of the Humanities Division, notes, “Our collection is much broader than you might think. Like Sherwin-Williams, we cover the earth.” Some of the strongest areas are U.S. history, local history, and American literature. Also notable are the Articles of Faith Collection, the Gluck Collection of Manuscripts, the Roycroft Collection, and the Shaker Collection. Many individual pieces are exquisite and extremely valuable.
One exceptional example: Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia. The book dates from the incunable period1450-1500, the years immediately following Guttenberg’s invention of movable typeand it represents a major departure from the religious and classical books that were the norm. The title is a made-up word that means approximately “The Struggle for Love in a Dream,” and the prose, Barone notes, is very much akin to that of James Joyce. The story is a long, erotic dream, and dreams within that dream, written mainly in a language that’s a hybrid of Latin and Italian, along with several other real languages and an invented language. Its oddities include puzzles, text that’s laid out in very contemporary-looking shapes, and illustrated title letters that, when strung together, spell “Franceso Colonna loved Polia greatly.” Polia is the female love interest of the story’s main character, Poliphili.
The Rare Books Rooms, which comprise a display area, a work room with an adjacent vault, and two other storage areas, are located at the Central Library. The display and work rooms sit within the Grosvenor Room (the library’s research room in the central branch downtown) and are open to the public by appointment.
(1 Lafayette Square, 858-7113)
Buffalo Museum of Science
Kathryn H. Leacock, curator of the museum’s collections, including its library, has trouble distinguishing between the rare books collection and the rest of the library. “As far as I’m concerned, the whole library is rare,” she says. And it is an exceptional collection, numbering approximately 10,000 monographs and 30,000 serials that cover the same areas as the museum’s general collections: anthropology, botany, geology, museology, and zoology, both vertebrate and invertebrate.
The rare books collection encompasses the same six areas and is mainly pre-1900 volumes ranging from classic works of ornithology to Mayan codices. Many of the works in the collection are numbered copies, with many printed in runs of 1,000 copies or less.
The museum partners with Buffalo State College’s Art Conservation Department to care for damaged books. Two recent conservation projects undertaken by graduate students as their final projects, one of a Thai manuscript and the other an Egyptian Koran, are on view in an exhibition titled Collections & Conservation, on view through May 21.
The library, including the rare books collection, is open by appointment.
(1020 Humboldt Pkwy., 896-5200 ext. 357)
Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum
Some collectors want to keep their good stuff to themselves, but not David and Marsha Karpeles.
The Karpeles Library is the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscripts and documents, numbering well over one million pieces. Because the Karpeleses believe in the importance of people having access to primary source material, they opened their first public museum in Santa Barbara in 1986. And because they wanted this level of access for people across the country, those who “don’t have the resources to go to the Library of Congress,” they opened eight additional museums in strategic locations throughout the United States, locations chosen so that the museums are maximally accessible throughout the country. Buffalo is the only city to have two Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums, the newest having opened this spring in a former church on Elmwood and North.
There’s a lot to like about this couple. They started out dirt poor. For a while as a young boy, David and his brother each had only one shirt. David was the lucky onehis brother’s had a Santa Claus pattern. David and Marsha worked hard as teachers, and astutely bought and sold real estate in Santa Barbara while it was still affordable. They’ve been partners in their collecting venture from the start, and Marsha still teaches school.
And about the collection? It covers a vast range of territoryliterature, science, religion, history, artfrom 5,000-year-old cuneiform clay tablets to Harry Potter-related ephemera. Christopher Kelly, director of the Buffalo museums, says, “They decided the fewer the criteria they assigned, the broader the collection could be. There are basically two criteria: One, if the subject matter covered would make sense to a fifth grader, they’ll buy it; or two, if the subject is mentioned in the Encyclopedia Britannica, they’ll buy it. And sometimes they’ll make an exception.”
Exhibition cases at each of the nine museums are uniform in size and number (although all the buildings are architecturally significant and different, with a notable leaning toward Greek Revivalprops to the Library of Congress). This is so exhibitions can rotate through the sites. At each venue, elements of the exhibitions are tweaked to reflect local interests. In the North Hall through June 30, visitors can see Early American Maps, including some of Western New York. Spring and summer hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (220 North Street and 453 Porter Avenue, 885-4139)
Old Editions Book Shop
Now in its fifth location (the first being a flea market stand in the early seventies), Old Editions has grown to fill its 35,000 square feet of retail and warehouse space with enough first editions, signed books, autographs, and historical documents to become one of the nation’s largest antiquarian bookstores.
At the time of this writing, the store’s inventory included Mark Twain’s autograph and several Twain first editions (not Huckleberry Finn, though, which owner Ronald Cozzi notes is very difficult to get), fifteen Charles Dickens first editions, president-autographed books, bound Civil War documents, and fine bindings done by hand in the eighteenth century.
Cozzi’s passion for books translates into his mission to connect collectors and bibliophiles with the right books. For more than thirty years, he has scoured stores, attics, garage sales, and conventions across the country for bookseven rescuing rare and valuable tomes from the curb.
“If you want legal advice, you go to a lawyer,” he says. “If you want banking advice, you go to a banker. If you want to get serious about book collecting, you go to your local bookseller. ... Our goal is to have you as a long-term client. I’m working for you as a scout.”
Old Editions, Cozzi says, is three stores in one: it also offers paperbacks at fifty cents and up and ordinary “reader’s copies” hardcovers starting at $2. (74 E. Huron St., 842-1734)
University at Buffalo Poetry/Rare Books Collection
When it comes to twentieth-century poetry in English, few libraries in the world can match the University at Buffalo’s Poetry/Rare Books Collection. Begun in 1938 when Charles D. Abbott traveled to England on a Carnegie grant to gather materials from English poetsand continued to write to thousands of poets, literally asking them for the contents of their wastebasketsthe collection has grown to approximately 110,000 volumes, including first editions, notebooks, artifacts, and more.
“Its collecting policy was and remains to collect first editions of books of poetry published in English beginning in 1900without prejudice,” notes curator Michael Basinski, himself a poet. “Therefore, we collect the glorious and the sacred as well as the profane and the ephemeral, the fugitive.”
That means the careers of heavy hitters like William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas are immortalized alongside underground ’zines, photocopied chapbooks, and works by popular but uncanonized poets like Paul Weinman.
Residing in a climate-controlled athenaeum on the fourth floor of Capen Hall, UB’s collection also proudly houses the world’s largest collection of James Joyce’s working papers; a healthy rare books collection (20,000 volumes, including the first four folios of Shakespeare’s plays andyes!a first-edition Huckleberry Finn); a manuscript collection of literary letters, manuscripts, and ephemeral items (“two million pieces of paper ... that reflect what’s going on in the creative process of the poet”); an unmatched collection of literary magazines (5,000 complete runs); and more.
The university’s current initiative is to make more of the collection accessible online. More than 10,000 pages of Joyce’s working papers, for example, can be studied at two computer stations in the reading room.
“Although it has monetary value in the world beyond these hallowed walls, its true value is in what kind of light it sheds on our imaginative process and what it elucidates for the intellect,” Basinski says of the collection. “I find this to be the most exciting part of being here.” (420 Capen Hall, UB North Campus, 645-2917)
Lisa Kane is a freelance writer obsessed with unlocking the arcane secrets of Hypnerotomachia. Jay Pawlowski would very much love to hold that first edition of Huckleberry Finn just one more time.
Back to the Table of Contents
Back to Top