Tender Buttons has been in business at 62nd and Lex since 1965. Founded by Diana Epstein, an editor at Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia, and Millicent Safro, an antique restorer, the store came into being when Epstein bought a closed button store on East 77th a year earlier. At first the store operated as a kind of salon, with Jasper Johns and other artists dropping in, but soon it turned into a bona fide button store and moved to its current location. It's a button museum really. There are workaday buttons for a couple of bucks, fancier ones from France or Italy, and show stoppers hand painted on ivory or silk, for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In 1991 Safro and the late Epstein wrote a book about their collection (called, of course, Buttons), and Epstein looked back to the days when button collecting was a common hobby:
"Where are those collectors, named Prudence, Velma or Wanda who sewed buttons onto paper pie plates in the 1930s and 1940s?" she asks. "They are gone, dying out like the Shakers."
Tender Buttons is just a couple of blocks away from the Subway Inn, so you could go for an unlikely combination and do a beer and button run. Don't try photographing the buttons though. Not allowed! If you're wondering about the name, Tender Buttons was a collection of poetry by Gertrude Stein, published in 1914.
"Left over to be a lamp light, left over in victory, left over in saving, all this and negligence and bent wood and more even much more is not so exact as a pen and a turtle and even, certainly, and even a piece of the same experience as more. "