Words Omri Rose
Photography Erin Barry
“I don’t know how many buttons we have. Thousands. Thousands and Thousands.”
“I don’t dream about them.” The words of Mrs. Maureen Rose, owner and proprietor of Taylors Buttons, a shop which could easily be in place along the streets of J.K.Rowling’s Diagon Alley or amidst a Dickensian tale. Fitting then, perhaps, that the buttons for the Harry Potter films were provided by Taylors Buttons and that Dickens himself twice lived as a young man in the narrow Victorian house, which for the past 17 years has been home to this a treasure of London’s artisan past.
Established for over a century, the shop came into the Rose family when Maureen’s late husband Leon, in his time known as ‘Mr. Buttons’took over from the previous owners around 50 years ago. Originally located on Brewer St. in the heart of Soho’s once thriving trade, Maureen has said she “couldn’t believe what they’d taken on –there was so much stock and it was all stacked up in a room which was smaller than the shop is now. It only had one light bulb above the desk.” As business flourished Maureen and Leon relocated to Silver Place, where they stayed for many years before finally moving and settling in their current home, at 22 Cleveland St, in Fitzrovia.
Taylors Buttons is filled with a combination of antique sewing machines, mysterious old tools for hand crafting, an impressive lead till from a bygone age, and of course the hundreds of dusty boxes – vintage collector pieces themselves – which contain the myriad of buttons, buckles, and more and more buttons that the shop has to offer. Too many types and styles to list, whether it be metal, glass, pearl, horn, wood, leather, dyeable, covered or whatever you may be after, Maureen possesses the knowledge of their exact location. But pointing to the many shelves overflowing with buttons, charmingly arranged in what can only be described as organised chaos, she confides mischievously, “They move at night!”
With all the shop has to offer, it is perhaps Maureen herself – sometimes referred to simply and with reverence as ‘The Button Lady’ – who is the real pearl of Taylor’s Buttons. It is Maureen’s good humour, sharp wit and rapport with her many customers, from Savile Row tailors and Wedding Gown Makers to Theatre and Film designers, Walk Ins, and first-timers that makes Taylors Buttons such a unique and authentic experience. Despite her modesty and after much cajoling, Maureen shares, some of the famous names that have become customers: from Gary Oldman to Vivienne Westwood, from Elton John to the Royal Family themselves.
But no matter who the customer may be, Maureen adds jokingly “We don’t charge extra for the dust!” Perhaps she should though, as it is that dust, of authenticity, that is part of what makes Taylors Buttons the charming and utterly unique shop that it is. “I have one rule. If you drop it, you pick it up.” And no doubt, many a curious or clumsy shopper has found themselves on their hands and knees doing just that!
Maureen may not really hold you to that rule, but in reverence to this humble yet historical shop – a place from an imagined bygone era still alive and relevant today – you may want to! After all, chances are you dropped them in the first place and if you don’t retrieve them, they may very well be lost forever. You’d be helping Maureen out as well, who these days finds less and less time to save buttons from the dreaded floor. But it’s all ‘a day in the life’ of the button shop and in a corner a massive container filled with assorted buttons, lovingly referred to as ‘floor buttons’, is a constant reminder of what happens to the ones that get dropped and never find a way home to their original boxes. “I don’t know how many buttons we have. Thousands. Thousands and Thousands.” As for favourites, she says she has a few. “I like the cherries. They’re pearl. A gentlemen once put them on his jacket.” She smiles as she says this, relishing the fact that one of her favourites has found a good home. “The most important thing is that you have to like them.” Her emphasis on ‘you’ and the way she phrased those two thoughts together however gave me the impression that her beloved cherry buttons would not necessarily have been her own first choice for the gentleman’s jacket. “The right button can really make all the difference.” After all, the devil is in the detail.
Between dealing with customers and phone calls, Maureen’s days are often spent working with covered buttons, most often for bridal ware, and it is in the making of these that one gets a sense of a true artisan at work. Maureen expertly and seemingly without looking, works the various pieces required for covering a button into her machine, deftly turning the handle and pressing down as she creates from fabric, backs, and moulds the many varieties of covered buttons that are required. “The small ones are very finicky. Sometimes you have to cover them twice.” Along with buttons, Maureen also covers belts and buckles, a secondary aspect to the business. And hers is the one shop in London that provide a facsimiles of the cut steel buttons used by the prestigious office of ‘High Sheriff of London’, the only person allowed to take their sheep over London Bridge!
Charmingly eccentric and a gateway to the past, Taylors Buttons is not without its modern touches. They recently launched their first website, entering into the 21st century with the charm, modesty, and the grace associated with them. No trumpets, no bangs, just honest quality and good spirits. “We’ll never get all the stock online. We’ve only put a tiny portion of it up so far.” Whatever the next steps for Taylors Buttons, it remains a testament to London’s past and an inspirational for small businesses to aspire to. Long may it remain as a symbol and reminder of the spirit of London’s artisan legacy.