By Karen M. Galatz
In the East Bay, if you’re looking for buttons, be they glass, wood, resin, metal, mother of pearl, Bakelite or other, you’d better go meet Mary Sortile, the proprietor of Exclusive Buttons on San Pablo Avenue. She has thousands and thousands of them.
Mary’s story is actually three stories in one. It is the story of a quaint business in the community; it is the story of an enduring partnership; and it is about aging with grace and purpose.
Story I: The business
Mary and her late husband Vince, both born and reared in Berkeley, started Exclusive Buttons in 1981. By then, Vince was a notions expert, having spent almost a decade selling buttons and such out of the back of his van to five-and-dime stores up and down the coast.
Vince had gone to barber school before the war, but hated being inside all day. The life of a traveling salesman who made it home in time for dinner with his wife and son suited him.
His route initially covered 13 variety stores, but grew to 36. One day, he asked his boss for a raise. According to Mary, the boss told Vince he was already earning more money than he was.
“Vince said he’d quit, if he didn’t get a raise,” Mary recalls, smiling as she remembers her husband. “The boss said, ‘Young guys like you are a dime a dozen. I can hire somebody else in a minute.’ Vince gave him a dime and walked out the door.”
The button man continued selling notions, but this time as his own boss. In those long ago, pre-Amazon, pre-rapid delivery days, Vince was able to update the stock of the dime stores right on the spot, right out the back of his van.
By the late 1970s, though, grocery stores were adding buttons, threads, needles and thimbles to their shelves, and the big variety stores, like Woolworth’s, were closing. Vince took his unsold inventory, bought the dead stock from the defunct variety stores, and opened Exclusive Buttons.
Mary helped paint the shop and install wood paneling. She did the books and made crocheted button bracelets that were a big seller, especially at the holidays.
Exclusive Buttons has been at 10252 San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito for 27 years. There’s a hand-painted sign out front. The “O” in Buttons looks like a button. Inside, the store is small and immaculate. And it is wall-to-wall buttons. Buttons – still on their original cardboard cards dating back to the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – hang on revolving metal display racks. There are buttons in tiny file cabinets; buttons in wooden drawers; buttons in a glass display case.
There are mother of pearl buttons, ones made of rhinestones, abalone, horn, bone, vegetable ivory (a nut of palm tree), almost every material imaginable, but plastic. There is no plastic. When Vince started in the business, there were no plastic buttons. Even when they were manufactured, Vince and Mary didn’t like them.
The buttons are arranged by color, size and type. There are “Diminutive” buttons (less than 3/8″ across) and “Large” buttons (greater than 1 1/4″ wide). There are buttons with shanks (the loop at the back that allows you to attach a button to an article of clothing) and ones with holes in them to sew directly onto fabric.
The only new stock Mary buys is glass buttons from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. They are intricately carved and iridescent, reflecting light in dazzling arrays of color.
Today Mary is still making the button bracelets, as well as the tools and supplies necessary to make jewelry out of buttons. On display behind the counter is a beautiful black sweater lined with colorful buttons as well.
Customers come from across the country and abroad. Vince kept a customer sign-in book and there are addresses from as far away as Australia, Finland and Sweden. One of shop’s regulars comes in each year from Hawaii.
Mary says they could have filled many more books over the years, but “Vince loved talking to people and forgot to ask them to sign the book.”
Mary admits she forgets to have people sign it as well. “I guess I like talking to people too,” she observes with a grin.
Mary doesn’t own a computer, but she knows that Exclusive Buttons is popular on Yelp – all five-star reviews. She doesn’t take credit cards, only cash and checks. “Years ago, the bank said we were too small for credit cards.”
Over the years, Exclusive Buttons’s clients have included the San Francisco Opera, Lucasfilm, a former San Francisco mayor, button collectors who specialize in specific colors, time periods and materials, crafters in search of the perfect button, nostalgia lovers, and the curious.
Business is good, according to Mary. In fact, she says it is better than it has been in years. “Young people especially are into vintage things. Everything now is made with plastic buttons and people come in for better buttons.”
“I’m so glad you’re open,” says a customer walking through the door. “Can you help me pick new buttons for my coat? The customer, a young woman with tattoos, adds “Wow, this place is like a museum. Wow.”
Story II: An enduring partnership
Mary and Vince were born in Berkeley, living their entire lives in the area. Both sets of their parents emigrated from Italy to the East Bay and were friends. Vince and Mary went to the same elementary, junior and senior high schools, but they didn’t meet until a few years later. Mary doesn’t recall how or where they met. “It was so long ago,” she says with a wave of her hand. They married in 1941 and celebrated their 65th anniversary before Vince died.
The addresses and businesses Mary recalls from her childhood may ring a bell only for those of a certain age. As a child she lived on 8th Street, where the Columbus School was. (It is now Rosa Parks Elementary School.) Her husband’s family owned a building next to The Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center at 1317 San Pablo Ave. and also one on Gilman and San Pablo.
Vince and Mary went to Burbank Junior High School (now the West Campus of Berkeley High School) and Berkeley High. During the war, Vince made war parts for ships at the old Jacuzzi plant in Berkeley. For a time, Mary worked retail at Marlene’s in Richmond and at Hilltop in Berkeley. Before the buttons, they owned and operated a dry cleaning store at Gilman and Nielson.
Exclusive Buttons was always a family affair. Instead of getting an allowance, their son Vince helped work the cast iron button-making machines.
When Vince died seven years ago at the age of 89, Mary knew she had to carry on, both in the business and in life. Vince’s presence is still strong in the shop. There’s a big photograph of him behind the counter and the business card Mary hands out reads “Vince and Mary Sortile.”
Mary proudly points out awards Vince received through the years and tells stories about him as she helps customers pick buttons. She’s especially proud of the “Who’s Who” certificate he received from the California Historical Society in 1986.
Story III: Aging with grace and purpose
But Mary doesn’t dwell in the past. She’s got a business to run. The doors officially open at 10 a.m., but Mary is usually there by 9:30.
Her posture is erect; her gray-white hair is freshly styled; her lips and nails are a matching soft mauve color. She is dressed in a stylish black leather jacket and looks a good two decades younger than her actual age. When she’s not at work, she gardens and enjoys her long-time hobby of making stained glass windows and lamps.
At the shop, there’s one stool, but Mary doesn’t sit down. There’s an old radio and an equally old TV too, but Mary rarely listens or watches. She’s too busy, greeting the customers, selling the merchandise, talking about the man she has loved for so many years.
Exclusive Buttons is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 to 3:30. If you go, be advised: Mary closes a bit earlier in winter, so she doesn’t have to drive home in the dark.
Karen M. Galatz is an award-winning journalist. Her experience includes the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and the Nightly Business Report. Galatz created, produced and anchored a business news broadcast for PBS stations in Nevada, an effort which led to an Edward R. Murrow award and an Emmy nomination. A native New Yorker, Galatz now lives in Berkeley and is working on a collection of personal essays and short stories.
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