Tender Buttons: The Art of Tactile Memory
At 143 East 62nd Street in New York City you’ll find the doorway to a small storefront, above which hangs a giant gold button. Cross the threshold and you’ll feel as if you’ve been welcomed into someone’s home; the store is beautiful, calm, and inviting. To the left is a long wall of boxes displaying every kind of button imaginable: at Tender Buttons, you can find any color, shape, and size of button, from a rare antique to vintage to modern.
The buttons are made all over the world. The boxes are meticulously arranged by color and material. On the right side of the store are cases filled with rare, antique, and collectible buttons, each one perched like an artifact in a museum display. As you browse, you’ll quickly understand that each button in the store is handpicked and that each offers a window into someone’s passions, memories, and adventures.
When I was a child, I learned about fashion and the fiber arts from my mother. She taught me to knit, crochet, and needlepoint, always emphasizing that going the extra mile meant the difference between handmade and homemade. One of the most valuable lessons she instilled in me was that buttons can make a garment, whether it’s store-bought or handmade. My mother and I have spent hours choosing the right buttons to transform a factory-made shirt from ordinary to extraordinary, or designing entire handknitted sweaters around a definitive button. Though they certainly have a function, these treasures are not simply utilitarian; they are small gems used to enhance our wardrobes. As a child, whenever I accompanied my mom to Tender Buttons, I felt as though I had been given privileged access to an undiscovered treasure trove. The amazing thing is that I’m sure that same feeling still exists for the thousands of patrons—browsers, celebrities, designers, and knitters alike—who have walked through the doors of this unique shop.
The history of Tender Buttons begins in 1964, when an encyclopedia editor, Diana Epstein, bought a collection of buttons and rented out a small storefront on East 77th Street to house them. She enlisted the help of a friend, antiques restorer Millicent Safro. In the tradition of Gertrude Stein, whose book Tender Buttons inspired the shop’s name, the two began hosting salons—button salons—for patrons. The popularity of these events and people’s desire to buy and collect buttons from the stash required Epstein and Safro to relocate and devote themselves full time to sales and to the expansion of the collection. In 1965, they moved to their current East 62nd Street location. For many years, the two traveled the world together seeking unusual buttons, acquiring incredible collections, and offering their expert advice. Since Epstein’s death in 1998, Safro has continued to grow the business.
Safro’s knowledge of each button in the collection is astounding. Not only can she share with you the history and origin of every button in the shop, but she can also recall the special relationships she has with her customers. “Not a day goes by without someone coming in to look for buttons for a knitted item,” Safro told me. As she describes helping customers choose buttons, you can feel how invested she is in each knitter’s project. “Fashion changes, fabric changes, but knitting is classic,” she says. And buttons offer the finishing touch.
The love and excitement that Safro and her staff have for the items they sell is as tangible as the buttons. Customers are encouraged to come and look, to take hours browsing and choosing. Safro and her team are always happy to help and provide advice.
As a native New Yorker who has watched the city transform almost daily, with many of my favorite stores having come and gone, I marvel at this shop, which seems to transcend time. Currently, one of Safro’s favorite buttons in the shop boasts the old English adage: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Indeed, I know that everyone at Tender Buttons will!
Dana Freed Fiddes is the cofounder of The Well Done Experience and Chicken and Egg Designs. She teaches crochet and designs in New York City. You can find her and her designs on Ravelry as DanaFreed.