In a neighborhood dominated by Bloomingdales and other big retail stores, there is one shop around the corner on East 62nd Street that defines a different type of high-end shopping. The shop Tender Buttons between Lexington and 3rd Avenue shifts the priorities of value by emphasizing not on the mass-manufactured, bigger-is-better attitude, but on the personalization of the things that matter — buttons.

“On the subject of buttons: there’s surely something charming in seeing the smallest thing done so thoroughly, as if to remind the careless, that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.” — Charles Dickens

The slim, brownstone building reveals a charming window display beneath one large button that used to be pink, but now glimmers in gold. This signature button is the logo of Tender Buttons and is also one of the many millions of buttons sold in the store. The door, inset from the street, gives the shopper a feel that creates anticipation as if one is about to walk into a magical place. The narrow interior houses countless buttons ranging from the 17th century to the present day. All of the furniture in the store is antique including the desks the clients can sit at to sift through buttons and find a perfect match.

While you are looking at the buttons, you are surrounded by the soft sound of footsteps above you to add the perfect homey touch. These footsteps belong to the owner Millicent Safro. Millicent Safro and late partner Diana Epstein started Tender Buttons by mistake. In 1964, Ms. Epstein bought a collection of buttons from a closed store and began a journey of her own dedicating her life to sharing the beauty of buttons with others. The store’s name, derived from a sign for tiny mushrooms in Paris, invited Ms. Safro to aid Ms. Epstein in the organization, and launch of Tender Buttons as the new “happening” store for artists such as Jasper Johns and Lenore Tawney.

Ms.Sherry Steiger (left) and Ms. Millicent Safro (right)

“I can’t tell you how many buttons we have in this store,” Ms Safro said. “We get asked that question so many times, but we can’t even ballpark a number.” The buttons are mostly categorized into colours and materials except for the most prized collections hanging on the walls. The buttons come from all over the world, some made by the dozens and others are one of a kind, but all of them are precious. They even have some button-related objects such as cuff links, combs, and playing chips to truly showcase the value in the world’s smallest commodities.

“I’m from San Francisco and every time I visit New York City, I find myself at this place to see which will be the next button to add to my collection,” said Ms. Beth McLeod. Clients such as Ms. McLeod treasure Tender Buttons as a part of their memories. Customers range from locals to often celebrities like Julia Roberts, Julie Andrews, and even Kermit the Frog whose trench coat are Tender Button ones. Later, a woman walked in with a shopping bag from Bergdorf Goodman and laid her newly purchased jacket on one of the wooden tables. She then began to browse through the collection of the rarest buttons to make her jacket uniquely her own. “This is very common,” mentioned Ms. Safro. “The weirdest request was probably when a gentleman asked for levitation buttons for his meditating room.”

Book by the late Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro – no longer in print, but available for purchase at the store.

The building on East 62nd Street is one of the narrowest in Manhattan at 12.6 feet wide. In 1929, Dorothy Caruso, the widow of Enrique Caruso, set up a the “Dorothy Caruso Reproducing Studio” in this building, making personal phonographs–a precursor to the modern recording studio. Interestingly, she catered to more than music–recording anything from a “greeting to a sales letter” [New York Times]. The space was renovated in 1950 and a home decor store moved in. This area remains a mini-enclave for home decor stores and of-course, unique shops like Tender Buttons.

No matter how small or big the request, the staff at Tender Buttons give everybody the same attention they deserve. The buttons within the store come from different origins and each have a different story to tell just like the New Yorkers that pass beneath the large, gold button outside.

Tender Buttons
143 East 62nd Street