All Buttoned Up

A beloved neighborhood shop goes out of business after more than 50 years

23 Sep 2019 | 01:06

Tender Buttons was a staple and an institution on the UES for five decades. Sadly, with the building being sold, the iconic business closed last month.

On Aug. 31, Tender Buttons, located at 143 East 62nd St., shuttered its doors. The store, which was founded by two friends, Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro, became the place to go for buttons. The name of the business came from stories written by renowned author Gertrude Stein.

“The 50 years went by very quickly,” Safro said. “We were enjoying ourselves in the shop and we loved the shop. Every day was a fun day.”

The business originated in 1964 when Epstein, a former reference book editor, purchased a button collection from a button shop at 236 East 77th, whose owner had just passed away. With the buttons in hand, she and Safro opened up Tender Buttons in 1968.

“We were friends and I thought it was a hilariously fun idea,” Safro commented.

Eventually, Epstein bought the building.

Learning on the Fly

Safro, who was an antiques restorer before joining forces with Epstein, never imagined operating a business for 50 years, let alone a button shop. It created some many memories, friendships and lifelong happiness, she told Our Town.

With no business experience and in her 30s, she was essentially learning everything on the fly. The duo traveled across the country and as far as Holland, London, Paris, Italy, Ireland and many other countries to purchase buttons.

The thousands of buttons were carefully arranged in the store and categorized by material, color, size and origin.

Over the years, many New Yorkers came to them for buttons, but eventually Tender Buttons became the place that designers worldwide bought from. At one point, they sold to Ralph Lauren and Barneys.

In fact, celebrities frequented the shop as well. Susan Sarandon and Tom Wolfe were among them.

“Being on the UES was miraculous,” she stressed. “We were very well appreciated. The people who came in the shop were extraordinary. It would only happen in New York.”

"The Best Quality"

In 1991, the duo wrote a book, Buttons” and in the 90s they opened up another shop in Chicago, where Epstein was originally from. However, in 1998, Epstein passed away and Safro inherited the building and continued to run the business.

“We had beautiful and fine buttons that you couldn’t find anywhere else,” Safro explained. “They were the best quality.”

While she saw countless businesses come and go, and more recently the latter, Safro is prepared to find a new location. While she is in her 80s, she has no plans to retire.

“If possible, I wish I could continue the shop and have it forever,” she said. “We’re not like mom and pop shops that are closing up, which is happening around the city. It was a unique shop.”