Q: You own a button-making company. How did you get started?
A: I started it 15 years ago when mostly for punk rock bands. I started doing one-inch buttons, which no one was offering in 1995. Guided by Voices was one of my first customers.
Q: I think I’ve heard of them.
A: Yeah, they’re doing a reunion tour right now actually. They started breaking up shortly after we started doing their buttons. Then we started doing buttons for a bagel shop.
Q: So how do you even start a company? Do you get some kind of loan or write a business plan?
A: I did put my first button machine on my credit card, but I still haven’t written a business plan.
The first machine I got was similar to those Badge-A-Minits. Badge-A-Minit makes little home machines. I found a machine online but I remember you couldn’t find much on the Internet in those days, and I would go to the library and write down phone numbers of places that I thought might have a one-inch button machine.
I found a company that had the machine but didn’t have the right paper cutter. Buttons are art printed on paper and then the plastic covers it, so the machine wasn’t very useful. I finally found a company that would sell the right cutter for the paper.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately, and another thing I found at the library was a collector’s guide to buttons. I met the guy who wrote the book and he has been treating me a bit like his protégé. He and I are going to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the button collection at the Smithsonian.
Q: I have to ask this—have you seen Office Space?
A: Yes. I’m always shaking my fist at the concept of flair. I talk about it as an example of what I’m up against. Like some companies say, “We don’t buy buttons, it’s flair.” I say, “But it’s a cross between a billboard and word of mouth! It’s wearable art!”
I actually interviewed the guy who made a lot of the buttons for the movie. He’s really shy but he likes to provoke people. His first button said, “Eat Shit Motherfucker.” He also made a button with a McDonald’s logo on it that said, “Eat Shit.” He went to court over it. I think there was another one he made that said, “Eat McShit and Die.”
Q: Is your business profitable?
A: You know, I hired this girl with a business degree and she was like, “Do we make money?”
It’s an honest living, and I think everyone likes working here.
Q: Who are your customers?
A: Ninety-nine percent of our business is custom. We do a lot of band buttons, non-profits.
Some are goofy buttons that people sell retail. Stuffed animal buttons, art buttons, PETA buttons, Keith Haring-style button packs.
Our minimums are pretty low, so we’ll do 50 buttons. A hundred buttons is 25 bucks, which is the same price as when I started.
It’s fun making buttons for people. There isn’t much we don’t do. We won’t do obvious bigotry, but we’ll do buttons we don’t necessarily agree with.
Q: Do you have any buttons at home?
A: I have a few different collections. At work, we save one of every button we do, so I have over 50,000.
Our museum that just opened has about 1000, and the archive has another 1000. I want to make the museum online in the coming months.
Q: You sound like you know a lot about buttons.
A: There is a history to them—they’re tied to a time. A lot of them are very temporary like little time capsules. Like there are some that were used for selling electric cars in 1900. Or there are flapper garter buttons with little saucy sayings on them. I love those.
The Smithsonian probably has mostly political buttons. Buttons are the most common political item. We collect mostly non-political buttons but we do have a small section of political ones.
Q: So there is a real history to them.
A: The guy who’s written the collector’s book on button—he knows so much about their history. I’ve also become friendly with the guy who started the trend of one-inch buttons being punk in London in the 1970’s.
Buttons were invented in 1896. They had beautiful illustrations at the turn of the century.
Q: Do you have a favorite button?
A: I have a few. Whenever someone asks me that question I point to this really stupid eighties button that says “USA Kicks Butt.” But really I like this one that says, “This is the ultimate button.” It’s the button talking about itself.
I have a few sentimental buttons, like the first one I ever bought, which has Snoopy on it. Or when I ran for student council I made these buttons out of paper and sort of masked the pin to the back.
There’s these ones I love that are metamorphic, like one has a woman looking in a mirror, but then you flip it over and it’s a woman masturbating.
A: Yeah, and that’s from the ’20s.