Address: 405 Bay St, Brighton VIC 3186
From an interview with Jenny Stefos that has been edited
The Brighton Button Shop is 103 years old.
It’s been in this building for about 35 years. Prior to that it was on the corner of Willansby and Bay Street for fifty years and, before that, it was in a little arcade opposite the cinema. It’s the oldest business on Bay street and the oldest in the Bayside region.
I’m owner number seven. I came in August 2011 and pretty much salvaged the shop. It was run down and – when I considered buying it – people laughed at me and said “what the hell are you going to do with a button shop?”
I used to walk past this shop with my daughter on the way to swimming class but I never noticed it. I came across it one beautiful wintery afternoon when I looked up and saw a sign that said “The Brighton Button Shop.”
When I looked through the window it looked more like an old opportunity shop.
I came inside and asked the lady behind the counter where the button shop had gone.
She stood there and said, “Madam, you’re standing in it.” It was dark and dilapidated and you wouldn’t have seen the wall of buttons because of the things hanging everywhere.
They used stands made from cane and old wicker. It was like someone dumped all of their old furniture in here.
“Where do you keep your buttons?” I asked her.
“If you push all of this stuff aside like a curtain you’ll see them,” she replied
“Oh my goodness,” I said.
“Why do you hide all of the buttons?”
“Madam, the only thing the young owners know about buttons is the buttons on their iPhone!” she said.
I cracked up laughing.
That was the beginning of a wonderful conversation.
It began with her telling me how the current owners were turning the shop into something else. It had a ‘For Sale’ sign up and the lady asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested.
I went away thinking about how unique the business was and how it could benefit the community to have it restored to its former glory. I wrote a business plan and it ticked all the right boxes.
So I got home one day and told my husband that I bought a lot of buttons.
“That’s great, honey” he said.
“How many is a lot?”
“Every button in the shop.”
“What?! Are you, nuts?! Where will you put them?”
“Oh, they come with a shop!”
There are aspects of this shop that I didn’t take into account when I started.
It isn’t just button enthusiasts that come here.
People are gobsmacked to know that lots of blokes come into this shop. Whether they’re businessmen, tradies, sportsmen, hobbyists and dry cleaners. All walks of life and for all sorts of reasons. Buttons fall off more things than just jackets and pants.
We get schoolchildren buying thread for projects and older people who come here for crochet and knitting. The ABC costume department comes here for bits and bobs to complement their costumes and projects. There are sailors and pilots who come in because only red wool will give you a straight line in the sky.
People come from every part of the globe, as this rare little gem of a shop has become quite a destination. I am better known overseas than in my local neighbourhood. When you delve a bit deeper you realise it’s not just buttons.
This place fills a lot of voids.
I don’t know how we came to be but haberdasheries used to be on every corner.
The word haberdash in German means “hurry, get this and that.” You’d walk in and they’d have all these bits and bobs. You wouldn’t know the names of them but they’d fix something.
They’d sell all these fiddly things; toggles, strings and ties that would hold things together or finish them off. Take jeans for example. Buttons constantly fall off so we get people in all the time who want a replacement. Often I put them back on for people because they can’t sew a button!
But a button shop is quite a unique concept. In wartime people would steal buttons from fallen soldiers. They were made out of metal and were revered, so soldiers would take them.
Button collecting is one of the oldest hobbies.
I’ve become quite famous for sewing and repairing woollen jumpers.
We all have these favourite old jumpers that are worn to death. They have little holes that people can’t sew themselves, or they’ll take it to someone who might make a mess of it.
My customers call my work invisible mending. It takes a bit of time to do because I’m a bit pedantic about getting a colour match, but I’ve become renowned for fixing these moth-bites, silverfish and tears. I can’t guarantee the service as finding the perfect colour match is no easy feat.
In the beginning I’d just sell the mending thread, and I still do. Many people prefer to have garments mended professionally so the work keeps coming.
This has been my personal imprint but it’s amazing that the shop keeps evolving over time.
We also do classes for knitting and crocheting.
It’s very ad-hoc and it happens organically.
I’ve never advertised it in my window but I’m constantly asked to do classes. I sometimes take small groups at random but – because I am extremely busy fixing and repairing things – this is not a regular fixture.
And come springtime we have the Ladies Spring Carnival. That’s when we start making hats. I’ve got a few milliners who make headwear, and the shop is abuzz between September and November.
To be honest, we don’t buy buttons anymore.
The ones on the wall are about ¼ of the buttons in the shop and the rest are in the cavern down the back.
No one wanted gold buttons at first.
I can’t begin to tell you how many customers we have who have shopped at Zara, put the clothing on the counter and asked to me take off the gold buttons. Now there is a massive resurgence in them.
Another big phenomenon is called ‘upcycling’. This is turning something old into something new by adding to it. Buttons are like fittings in your house. If you take off old taps and put new ones in you change the aesthetic.
The same thing happens with clothing. A lot of kids buy their clothes from op-shops which is fantastic. They know a new set of buttons will immediately improve the garment. For example, blue suits are in but matching buttons are out. So customers come looking for wooden grain looking buttons.
I pick up all of these trends based on what the younger clients tell me.
Online sales are hysterical. It cracks me up.
I was there too when I was a stay-at-home mum.
I couldn’t go out much so I’d be in my pyjamas and slippers shopping for something glamorous online.
But very often I was gobsmacked at the rubbish I’d receive. The photo never matched the quality of the item.
I always felt sucked in.
It’s all smoke and mirrors. How much do you have to buy before you realise it’s just shit.
I stopped online shopping and went back to brick and mortar retail.
It’s where you really find the gems but, now, the the crowds are gone.
For the six years that I’ve been here I’ve been approached by lots of people who want to do a website for us.
The main reason why I don’t sell online is because I work with pantone and size. It’s different to the colours that you see on your phone or screen. Many people just don’t get it.
You don’t see true colour or size on a phone!
And you will never really capture how this little shop looks, feels and smells. When customers come in, the colours blow them away. You just can’t get that on a screen or device.
But here is why really I love online sales; customers who buy online are usually horrified with what they get. We end up fixing their purchases so they are wearable or sellable.
I do a lot of that.
The interesting thing about places like Spotlight and Lincraft is they’ve moved further away from the core business of craft.
Everyone is price driven. People go hunting for the lowest price and that can sometimes mean getting the wrong product. But I’d rather sell nothing than the wrong thing.
In economic terms, it’s called opportunity cost; do you buy something cheap and nasty and not know whether it’ll work. Or do you go to a small boutique shop. Yes, we charge a bit more. But we help guide people through the process.
Like anything, you get what you pay for.
We don’t sell a button to anyone unless they have the garment with them.
Buying a button is like buying a tyre for your car. You’d never in your wildest dreams do it without your vehicle. Tyres need to be fitted to the right make, model and size. The same principle applies with buttons.
At the end of the day, it’s not the buttons on the garment that tell us what you need. You need the garment so the buttonhole can guide us. There’s the fabric, the texture, the cut, the drape and so on. All of this tells us what’s right and what’s wrong when fitting new buttons.
The size of buttons varies by 0.5mm and – while that doesn’t sound like much – it can look very, very wrong if it’s done improperly.
Will this shop survive?
Prior to this, I worked in big corporations where everyone wore drab suits and black was the staple uniform. So it’s lovely to come here and be surrounded by colour. Everyone who has ever worked here has a passion for this business. It’s all about problem solving and nutting out a better way to do things.
I thoroughly enjoy this. But what I charge certainly doesn’t cover my osteopath, chiropractor, the doctor for my arthritis and many other ailments. So it’s interesting to see where we’re going to go.
I have a ten-year-old daughter and when I’m feeling at my lowest point I’ll sometimes say, “I’m closing the shop. It’s time to hang up my buttons!” She’ll respond with “Noooo mum.”
“You can’t do that! I still haven’t seen them all ”
She’s grown up here and this has been a big part of her life. I haven’t had time to teach her to knit, sew, crochet or put a colour palette together. But she’s picked up how to do all of that at her own pace.
She’s just as good as me so – regardless of what happens in the future – she will certainly have many stories to tell.
Whether she hangs on to the business or not, I don’t know.
There’s no plan for the next hundred years.
Written by Aron Lewin (photo gallery by Aron and Gabriella.)dehw