Button boutique offering fascinating fasteners
Tender Buttons, on East 62nd Street near Lexington Avenue, claims to be the "only shop in America devoted entirely to the sale of buttons." And it really is such a delight to wander through this shop dedicated to buttons, such commonplace objects which, here at Tender Buttons, become something extraordinary. The long, narrow shop is charming, with old-fashioned lamps, a black and white checkered floor, and antique furniture. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with small boxes overflowing with buttons of every imaginable material and from every time period. The shop's wares range from rare 18th century painted ivory buttons to chunky Art Deco Bakelite designs, from woven leather blazed buttons to whimsical children's buttons in the form of animals. Some of the most exceptional are framed behind glass and displayed as if in a museum.
The history of Tender Buttons is a fascinating as the buttons contained in the store. In 1964, the late Diana Epstein purchased a closing button store on East 77th Street from an eccentric button dealer, and with it came a large collection of buttons. She decided to open Tender Buttons, which is named for Gertrude Stein's 1914 book of poems. Epstein quickly partnered with Millicent Safro, an antiques restorer who stumbled across the shop in search of a replacement button. At first, among the disorganized old boxed of buttons, the shop functioned as an art space and gathering place for artists like Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, and Lenore Tawney. But before long, people began to come in to purchase their quirky and rare buttons; in short time the artistic venture turned into a unique and flourishing business. The owners immersed themselves in the history of buttons and before long were scholars on the subject, scouring the globe for over thirty years in search of magnificent buttons, and publishing three books on the subject.
In 1965, Tender Buttons moved to its present location at 143 East 62nd Street, a quaint red brick Colonial Revival building on the Upper East Side. You can find the store by its signage - a large, gleaming, golden button hanging from scrolling ironwork.
Tender Buttons is a prime example of the type of super-specialized store that can only stay in business in cities like New York. Its courteous staff, old-fashioned feel, and antique products are part of a neighborhood character that is all too quickly disappearing on the Upper East Side, and especially those areas around Lexington Avenue. (March, 2011)