Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tender Buttons

Looking for the website of Tender Buttons (143 East 62nd Street, New York, NY 10065, 212 758-7004, fax 212 319-8474 http://www.tenderbuttons-nyc.com/), I entered tenderbuttons.com, only to find myself on a Gertrude Stein memorial site. So the first thing I found out about Tender Buttons is that it was named after a culinary essay by Gertude Stein, which intrigued me--I like Gertrude Stein :-). When I did find the website, it confirmed my impression of the store, which is that it is a labor of love, with extreme attention to details. The website links are all adorned with buttons that move into view when the link gets activated. It is less an inventory of buttons, and more an explanation of their history and their magnificence.

Tender Buttons opened in 1964, when Diana Epstein bought an old button store on a whim from a collector. She was joined by Millicent Safro, who helped her organize the buttons into a new shop. It was originally an artist hangout, and became a proper store only over time. In 1965, it moved to its current location.

As I entered the store, the seemingly endless wall of meticulously arranged gray paper carton boxes beckoned me to dive into this world of buttons and get lost in it. Each box had its own little inscription, explaining the content and naming its price.

There were leather buttons, copper buttons, buttons made out of shells, painted buttons, woven buttons, monkey see/monkey do buttons, glass blown buttons, calder/picasso/matisse inspired buttons, old buttons, new buttons, verrry expensive buttons, and also quite affordable ones. In other words: Tender Buttons has it all. I met someone at a knitting group once, whose friend had spent a small fortune on buttons here. "But he made the sweater for his mom," my acquaintance explained, "and he wanted it to be the most beautiful it could be." Walking along the wall, I wondered which ones he ended up picking. It could have been a number of them, and yes, I was tempted to spend a small fortune, too. Perhaps on these blown-glass envelope buttons...

I passed the button wall and began staring at exquisite but completely out-of-my-reach blue stone cufflinks (my husband’s birthday is on Valentines Day--cufflinks anyone?). But the high price end in the store really IS high! They were over $5,000. I passed by a few baskets holding a tiny book. What could that be about? You guessed it: buttons. It was written by Diana Epstein, and--like the website—provides clear and intriguing insights into the land of little round things. I grabbed the book and walked on to the “Wall of Frames”. Yes, while one wall of the store is all boxes, the other is all frames of rare and antique buttons. One set in particular caught my attention:

These buttons were made exclusively for Tender Buttons. Replicas were available and affordable. They wandered into my hand immediately (I have a child in kindergarten). After I had taken all my pictures, I talked to Shelly (who sat behind the counter) for a while, about the Internet, and blogs, and topics unrelated. I got the feeling that the staff is very friendly, but that the atmosphere can, at times, feel a bit fast-paced. One can, however, spend oodles of time browsing, discovering little gems, unhindered by anyone. It’s a bit like a museum, except that you can, and want to, buy everything.

I limited myself to my little book and those beautiful school buttons, grabbed my little paper bag, and headed for the bus. After I found a seat, I took out my book and started reading. Just like anything else associated with this store, the book is beautifully edited down to every last detail. Even the bookmark is a button on a string.

I’ll share only a few button gems here:
- Button man (American slang for a rank and file member of the mafia)
- Taking someone down a button hole
- Button your lip
- Cute as a button
- Bursting your buttons
- Button Gwinnet was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
- Button is also an island in Hingham, Massachusetts.
- The earliest buttons are from 2000 BC, found in Egypt.
- The first buttons made in the USA are from 1750.
- The reason why men wear buttons on the right and women were them on the left is that men used to dress themselves. Buttoning buttons (for those of us who are left-handed) on your body is easier with the buttons on the right. Women, especially those who could afford expensive buttons (and therefore tailors), were often dressed by servants. Since the servants were standing in front of them facing the garment, women’s buttons were attached on the left.
- In 17th Century Connecticut, anyone who wore gold or silver buttons was taxed.
- In WWI, the British Army spent the equivalent of $500,000 per year on paste used to polish buttons.

Tender Buttons was the perfect place to visit before I head off to Brooklyn next week, and back to pure yarn stores. I thoroughly enjoyed this excursion into yarn-related shops. I could go on and on about them, but it's time to return to spun fibers now. :-)

(These buttons have animals drawn on them in meticulous detail. The names, beginning with whatever letter the animal is drawn on, are written on the buttons.)

1 comment:

dacg said...

Oh my gosh!! I loved this piece on tender buttons.....the buttons are wonderful and what a history.

Thank you for all your work (I would enjoy this for sure) in showing us your beautiful shops in New York.