Tender Buttons sold tiny (and big) buttons of all sorts and now it has closed its doors for good.
Its founder, the late Diana Epstein, acquired a cache of buttons and in collaboration with her partner and heir, Millicent Safro, turned her collection into an institution.
Saturday, August 31st, Safro opened the place to the public for the last time. The store then spent September boxing up its jillions of buttons. Safro said to The New Yorker,
“We’re down to the nitty-gritty. Each little thing needs to be considered,” she said. She found a stray shank button—a miniature wire clothes hanger—that properly belonged in a box labelled “homage to Calder, Picasso, & Matisse.” She wants to send the box to Alexander Calder’s daughter, whose daughter used to work here.
The buttons are temporarily going to a storage warehouse in Long Island City and Safro, who is 85, says she keeps forgetting to return messages from major museums.
According to a fantastic piece in The New Yorker by Troy Patterson,
In 1964, Epstein was a reference-book editor with avant-garde sensibilities. One day, she went into a button shop at 236 East Seventy-seventh Street, heard that the owner had died, and bought the inventory, in the spirit of seizing a trove of found objects. (“Each one is like a tiny, evocative event,” she later told a Talk of the Town writer, Susan Orlean.) To store her hoard, she signed a lease, and she immediately brought in Safro as her accomplice in concept art. “It wasn’t intended to be a shop,” Safro told me. “It was a button shop, but as what would now be called performance art, and people would come, and we would show twenty-nine shades of green corroding or corrugated boxes.” They kept their day jobs.
In the age of the happening, Tender Buttons presented a new parsing of common objects. Jasper Johns came through. Jim Dine once called the shop “a shrine” and wrote that, on first looking into it, he “experienced the sensation of being in familiar territory, like the bottom of my mother’s sewing basket or Joseph Cornell’s workshop.”
Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Bill Blass would come in or send staff to stock up and in the 80s, Epstein and Safro would hold buttons for Patrick Kelly, who was guaranteed to buy a heap at least once a year, every year.
If you’d never been, you might not get what a treasure this place was. Even if you didn’t need buttons or couldn’t sew you could spend HOURS looking at this and that and asking to see something specific.
Read Patterson’s whole story here. It’s fascinating, even if you aren’t into buttons.
Such a tiny place with such minuscule merch is a HUGE loss to a disappearing New York City. I guess Etsy and eBay are the new Tender Buttons, but like a lot of things that have moved online, that’s not nearly as much fun.
(Photos, Facebook, Wikimedia Commons; via The New Yorker)