Tender Buttons has closed its doors, and we have lost an enchanted place. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, from a tranquil storefront in a trim brick house, it sold buttons of all sorts: humble, fancy, rare, custom, animal, mineral, vegetal, synthetic. Its founder, the late Diana Epstein, acquired a stockpile of buttons on a whim and, in collaboration with her partner and heir, Millicent Safro, nurtured her collection into an institution. On Saturday, August 31st, Safro’s staff opened the place to the public for the last time. By the most conservative estimate, she was the curator of a button motherlode numbering a billion and one.
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.”
In 1968, Tender Buttons settled beneath the dormer roof of 143 East Sixty-second Street, a building four stories tall, around twelve feet wide, and ninety feet long. Tender Buttons was seated in its ideal niche. Shooting the shop in “Julie & Julia,” the writer and director Nora Ephron depicted it, accurately, as a walk-in treasure chest. Its narrowness heightened its Wunderkammer charm and deepened the psychedelic magic as you stood on the checkerboard floor and browsed buttons made of gold, glass, brass, copper, aluminum, enamel, cotton, paper, silk, shell, horn, bone, leather, Lucite, Bakelite, and everything else. A glistening gross of mother-of-pearl four-hole buttons—the type to fasten a collar to a good shirt—could fit in the palm of your hand.
Tender Buttons is disappearing and dispersing. On August 31st, Frances Beatty, a gallerist who is also the managing director of the Ray Johnson estate, spent the whole day there. This was partly because Johnson designed the Tender Buttons signage and stationery; its old sign—not the circular button gleaming above the door but the vintage brown rectangle hanging above the sales desk—is on loan to Johnson’s estate and may be shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2020. But it was always hard to leave the place. A mass of a billion and one buttons—buttons of Navajo silver and African wood and French porcelain and Japanese pottery and American plastic—exerts extraordinary force. You would enter while on a quick errand and drag yourself out after an afternoon spent in a trance of studying treasures and oddities. On the final day, the final client purchased a selection of sea-mammal-shaped toggles carved from walrus tusks.
Millicent Safro in Tender Buttons.
The shop’s supply met the demands of local clotheshorses in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. “People would come in here with shopping bags from Bergdorf and designer places—Yves Saint Laurent!—and they’d all change to more luxurious buttons,” Safro recalled. “Bergdorf—or Alexander’s, where you bought a fourteen-dollar trench coat and changed the buttons to horn, and it elevated the coat. That happened a lot.”
Tender Buttons thrived. Epstein and Safro moved into a residential apartment upstairs. Epstein eventually bought the building. The buttons proliferated, as the couple jaunted from souk to estate sale to thrift shop and bought buttons lustily. These were the days when they’d hop in a car and buy a historical society’s whole collection on a hunch.
Their neo-Dada stunt evolved into an essential rag-trade resource. Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and Bill Blass and Oleg Cassini would come in or send staff to realize their visions. In the nineteen-eighties, Epstein and Safro would hold buttons for Patrick Kelly, who was guaranteed to buy a heap at least once a year, every year. Kelly died, of complications from AIDS, on the first day of the nineteen-nineties, and then the shop was holding buttons for a ghost.
When Tender Buttons closed for business, the staff covered the front window with brown paper, like a mirror draped with fabric for shiva. Passersby, seeing a sign that said “TENDER BUTTONS has decided to close this location,” exchanged what-a-shame head shakes and declared it the end of era. To Safro, they cried. She bumped into Gay Talese just the other day. “He was coming out of the shoemaker, and he was bereft, and I said to him, ‘You’re in our archives’ “—a Father’s Day window display that featured the title of Talese’s book “Honor Thy Father.” (Tender Buttons tends not to go around dropping the names of its famous customers, but Orlean’s Talk piece mentions Epstein’s delight at discovering some buttons that were perfect to turn into cufflinks for Prince).
In the nineteen-nineties, Tender Buttons opened a second location, in Chicago, where Epstein had roots. In 1991, the proprietors co-authored “Buttons,” with a preface by Tom Wolfe. “Even a quick glance will tell you that Tender Buttons is not a shop but a button museum that happens to deaccession daily in order to keep going,” Wolfe wrote. The other day, Safro came across a trouser button that they procured with Wolfe in mind. Its acquisition dates to when “he was in his white . . . his off-white . . . his ivory period,” she said, “before he went into his pink period.”
Barbara Stoj organizing buttons.
Epstein died in 1998, and Safro inherited the building. Shortly before, she had moved into an apartment around the corner and afterward she kept the show going with the twinkling assistance of her right-hand woman, Barbara Stoj. The old residence became a workspace and break room filled with buttons—buttons plus pins, buckles, badges, baubles, notions, insignia, ephemera, binding, window displays, and passementerie.
Tender Buttons has spent September boxing up its delirious abundance, and, when I stopped by recently, Safro told me, “We’re down to the nitty-gritty.” WQXR played as she sorted. “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.
Per the store’s Web site, “Tender Buttons is temporarily closed.” (Emphasis added.) It is part of Safro’s process to say that the billion and one buttons are only temporarily going to a storage warehouse in Long Island City. The bulk of them, anyway. Safro, who is eighty-five, says that she keeps forgetting to return messages from major museums.
It is funny, and sad, to go through Tender Buttons’ archive of press clippings. You see the cover of the June, 1978, issue of Harper’s Bazaar, featuring Christie Brinkley and a cover line promoting the “best fashion buys from $3-$65” stapled to a market page featuring English-made carved rock-crystal buttons, set in fourteen-carat gold, depicting a mallard duck: “Set of 3 large, 6 small: about $1400. At Tender Buttons.” You see Epstein and Safro identified as “partners” and “friends.” Tender Buttons is named after a classic book by Gertrude Stein, the high-modernist writer and queer icon. Millicent Safro, the world expert on buttons, was, at first, the Alice B. Toklas in this relationship.
The last time I visited the shop, I brought a photographer with me, and we spent hours eyeing all the buttons and listening to Stoj’s predictions of what would next be trending in fashion—based on designers’ recent orders—and smelling proofs for stationery from the age when the store’s phone number was PLaza 8 7004. Now, when the landline phone rang, Stoj would answer (“Tender Buttons!”) and redirect the caller to M&J Trimming. I washed my hands in a bathroom hung with button-themed wallpaper and a button-themed wartime propaganda poster. (“Button your lip! Loose talk can cost lives.”) We went upstairs to see more buttons, and bags for buttons, and books about buttons, and books with titles mentioning buttons, and framed displays of buttons, and button cabinets, and a photographic print of a Max Halberstadt portrait of Sigmund Freud. When I said that I could spend the rest of my life in the building, Safro replied, “So could I.”