When you think of midtown East, you may conjure visions of New York’s most over-the-top bastion of fashion. It’s home, after all, to the three B’s—Barneys, Bergdorf’s and Bloomingdale’s—which is to say, everywhere Friends character Rachel Green hung out when she wasn’t inhaling coffee at Central Perk.
But for people like me, who shun corporate chains like we do the subway on St. Patrick’s Day (eww), it’s also home to a wonderful little secret hidden just a couple blocks north of Bloomingdale’s on East 62nd Street. There, amid the off-the rack tackiness, you will find a shop so perfectly picturesque it could be brushed into a Thomas Kinkade Christmas village. The name of the shop itself feels pulled from poetry: Tender Buttons.
These are not the meh plastic type destined to pop off your Old Navy pantaloons. These are the buttons dreams are made of.
Opened in 1964 by Diana Epstein, a former editor of Funk &Wagnalls Encyclopedia, the narrow storefront sells exactly what its name suggests: buttons. But these are not the meh plastic type destined to pop off your Old Navy pantaloons. No, these are the buttons dreams are made of, all housed in tidy rows of boxes that call to mind a Victorian library—though without a speck of dust. Tender Buttons is so beloved that Pop Art icons like Jasper Johns and Ray Johnson used to duck inside for color inspiration.
You’ll find silver buttons from the Art Nouveau era, Wedgwood buttons made in the 1700s, Bakelite offerings from Deco decades. Latter-day button enthusiasts can match missing fasteners here in everything from horn to woven leather, but they’ll likely get distracted. That’s because the shop—named for a Gertrude Stein poem penned in 1914, which includes the evocative line “A circle of fine cardboard and a chance to see a tassel”—is chockablock with buttons from the owner’s travels to Cairo, Milan, Ireland, Moscow, and beyond. It’s a tale of human ingenuity writ small in buttons, each of which has perfect function and form.
In some ways, Tender Buttons is a museum, every bit as enticing as the Museum of Modern Art. Without a fee, you can stroll in and eye exquisite toggles from days gone by. You might spot copper and glass French buttons that were painted in the late 1700s; gold foil and enamel offerings from the 18th century; or ivory buttons carved with miniature scenes in Dieppe, France. Unlike at MoMA, you can buy the piece that sings to you and carry it home, to be applied with carefully looped thread to your choice togs, the old-fashioned way.
Which brings me to the real reason I love it so much. Ultimately, Tender Buttons is a time machine. When you set foot on its checkerboard floor, you feel like you’re stepping back to another era—to a version of old New York where there was one store for each desire: butcher, baker, buttonmaker. Long before televisions lined Times Square, there was no one-stop shop in that bygone New York, which made it the city it is. Denizens had no Amazon, no Etsy, and no other choice than to—imagine!—leave their homes to buy stuff, thereby mixing and mingling and creating something new. Tender Buttons is the New York of yesteryear—a teensy button of a store mere blocks from the midtown hordes, the desperate last gasp of American retail. It’s the fastened equivalent of Meg Ryan’s lovely bookstore in You’ve Got Mail, only it’s real. And it’s fabulous.
Kathryn O’Shea-Evans is a Colorado-based writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Follow her on Instagram at @kathrynosheaevans. For WSWD, she previously wrote about the bathroom at the Frick Collection.