Nobody’s going to call Romeo Bozzo a quitter, not after 25 years at King and Wentworth.
But he’s weary of life down here. A bungalow, somewhere quiet on the Mountain is what he pines for now.
So there’s a For Sale sign in the window. No offers yet. Romeo knows he must be patient.
When he arrived on the street in the late ‘80s, King and Wentworth was still downright notorious. The northeast corner belonged to the Balmoral Tavern, an old-school dive that police knew well.
It had been going since the 1940s. In those days, there were men stopping in on the way home from factory jobs.
The factories slipped away, the money for beer dried up. In the spring of 2005, the Balmoral closed. A couple of years later they knocked it down.
At the same time they demolished a burned-out rooming house beside it, and it’s now all just a parking lot for Cathedral High.
So that’s on one side of Romeo. On the other, an empty pizza shop. The place burst into flames last summer and police charged the owner with arson.
A surprise inside
But Romeo is unbowed. Walk into his world and you will be surprised.
At the front, in an airy space with ceilings 14-feet high, art covers the walls. The decor is soft and peaceful.
It’s more than 100 feet to the back of the building. This single-storey structure went up in the late 1920s, about the time that the Liquor Control Board of Ontario was formed. And right into the mid-'50s, this address was LCBO store No. 22.
Romeo has created two apartments at the rear. The place seems to go on forever. "This place intimidates people," he says. "They don’t know what to do with it."
Some have told him to drop the price, now at $290,000. He’s not going there. If he could just get people through the door, he says, they would see it’s worth it.
They came by boat
Romeo is 76. He was born in Calabria, the south of Italy. In 1951 his father packed up the whole family – that would be nine kids – and they sailed to Canada.
Romeo spoke no English. At King George school, they called him a DP, a popular insult of the day. It stood for displaced person.
The next year he went to St. Ann’s. "I was 14 and they put me in with kids in Grades 2 and 3. But other immigrants were in the same boat."
He soon quit school, found a job on the Centre Mall construction site.
But then father made an announcement: "We’re all going back to Italy." He wanted to open a grocery there.
And he did. Romeo and brother Phil helped out, but not for pay. The two didn’t like that, and after a couple of years told father they were heading back to Hamilton.
Phil eventually ended up with his own construction firm and became a wealthy man. He’s a partner in five Tim Hortons. He has built a fine home in Italy and spends much of his time there. The seven other brothers and sisters are in Italy too.
The black sheep
So that leaves just Romeo, there on King East.
"I’m the black sheep of the family," he says, "but I phone home every week."
He has turned his hand to many occupations. In the early days, he painted houses and had a couple of guys working for him.
"Then I had this crazy idea that I wanted to be a hairdresser," he says. He had a shop at King and Edgemont.
Then it was draperies. For a time, he had a store right downtown, between Livingston Furs and Marvin Caplan Gentlemen’s Apparel, in the mall beside what is now the Crowne Plaza.
But the rent was killing Romeo. So he moved to King and Wentworth. He figured it didn’t matter so much where he was located, because he usually just took samples to the clients.
Romeo had married at 24 and split up 13 years later. It was he who raised the kids. And three years ago, at a chapel in Niagara Falls, he married Pam Cone. It is her art that lines his walls. She paints scenes of Italy for him.
Romeo is retired from the drapery business, but every man needs a project. His these days is a lightweight cart that lets you wheel your grass trimmer around. He had 1,200 made up. He’s sold a few hundred, the rest are piled high downstairs.
Romeo is not one for regrets. One day, he says, he will sell all that basement stock. One day, he will sell his building on King. One day, there will be a little house on the hill.