Michael Merisola and his long-running store CooCooU27 are synonymous with prime mid-century furnishings. Merisola has been at the helm of the store for decades, moving locations throughout Buffalo (Elmwood, Hertel, Chandler, Tonawanda) as the business blossomed, becoming internationally renowned among shoppers, including those in the film industry.
CooCooU27 is located at 111 Tonawanda Street in Buffalo’s Black Rock neighborhood, along a block of brick industrial buildings. Your first visit you may require a U-turn as it’s back from the street and down a short driveway.
The shop is open Tuesday-Friday from 11am-4pm, and Saturday and Sunday 12pm-6pm but call ahead to make sure that Merisola is around — the life of a collector and self-defined “picker” is complicated. Merisola’s phone is constantly abuzz. People also pop in to not only browse, but to visit with him. One of his early business cards, he says, stated CooCooU27 hours as “‘I’m open every day for the rest of my life.’ I thought that was kind of funny.”
The business is two floors: the ground floor is like a warehouse, but climb the staircase lined with artwork and collectible pieces to enter the massive second floor filled with thousands of furnishings in a more polished setting. Rows of furniture, musical instruments, vintage appliances, and artwork are found throughout the lofty space. Appropriate to the era, Merisola has jazz playing on the CooCooU27 hi-fi.
Just as CooCooU27 is equally a shop and warehouse, Merisola is both a mid-century collector and musician. “I play everything and started playing when I was seven years old. I went to Lafayette High School, and they forced me to play the trombone. My music teacher gave me a Curtis Fuller album (a jazz trombonist who began his career in the post-war era) and I took it home. It changed my life. I played all through high school and then at Buff State where I played in a big jazz band.” It’s not unusual to find Merisola taking a break, playing jazzy riffs on his keyboards amid the furnishings.
When asked how he got his start in business Merisola says, “I met my girlfriend Christine, now my wife, and we were both into vintage clothing – we were pickers for Zoot Suit City. At that time all we could afford was thrift store stuff for our apartment, and back then you could find a lot of mid-century – unbeknownst to me, it was high-end furniture.
And the origin of the name CooCooU27?
“The name is from a Manhattan Transfer song from 1979. I always liked the song, it’s kind of out there,” he says. “Plus, we weren’t selling antiques, we were selling all kinds of kooky things, at that time you didn’t see a store selling boomerang coffee tables. Another reason I liked the name was my grandmother used to call all us kids ‘Coocoo.'” And the 27 in the name comes from the store’s former address on Chandler Street. It stuck.
“My eye was always drawn to modernism, and we were filling our place up with it,” Merisola continues. “It was the 80’s and Christine and I went to New York City on a weekend road-trip and walked into a gallery and said to the guy working there, ‘We have all of this in our house.’ I asked if they bought furniture and the gallery worker said, ‘Why, what do you have?’ and I said, ‘I have thirteen of these chairs.’ He said, ‘Well send me photos.’
“Sure enough the guy calls and he bought all of the furniture. Then we opened the first CooCooU27 location on Elmwood in 1987. I had never thought of how a piece of furniture could be made by a designer; back then there was no reference on mid-century furniture. There were Kovels’ guides to porcelain, et cetera, but not this, so I had to educate myself by going to galleries and learning what it is. The rest is history.”
“In some ways these designs bring me back to my childhood and give me a feeling of home because it’s very familiar,” he adds. “I was born in ’58; I didn’t live with this in my home growing up but it resonates with me – the fashion, the music, the style of that time. It’s very design-forward, ahead of its time. And then obviously look at the materials. Architects who were out of work started to design furniture and it’s just a phenomenal period of design, glamorous stuff with curves influenced by a lot of Art Deco but with much cleaner lines. It was very high-tech for its day.
“What I carry here fuels my soul and passion. We had such a rich concentration of mid-century furnishings here – there was industry, a lot of money with everyone working after the war.”
And how is his home decorated, is it top to bottom midcentury? “We live in Arts and Crafts style bungalow in North Buffalo,” he says, “so mid-century modern doesn’t look good in it. What we do have is French Art Deco.”