“Everyone laughed when I said I wanted to open a button store”

Button Button | BCBusiness
Colleen Miller, owner of Button Button

Despite a particularly negative encounter with a consultant her store’s fledgling days, Colleen Miller has made a business out of buttons alone

Everyone laughed when I said I wanted to open a button store. But I’d lived in lots of different countries, and I’d seen button stores in Europe. As a vintage clothing gal who was into sewing, I was finding it difficult to find good buttons here in Vancouver.

When I opened in 1995, I signed up for a free 45-minute business consultation, because I didn’t know anyone who’d been in the business and I’d never worked in retail. I’d done all my research, standing on street corners counting traffic at certain times of day, and I had all my buttons. So I was ready to roll when I met with the consultant, but he just said, “Look. Why don’t you just take your buttons and drive into the Interior, rent a hotel room, put an ad in the paper that you’re there with your buttons and see how it goes.” And I said, “I don’t have a car.” So he stood up and said, “I just can’t waste my time with you anymore.”

It threw me for a loop, and for a week I just stopped everything. I thought I would just forget the plan, because he’s right. And then I thought, No, he isn’t. I really have confidence, despite nobody else around me having confidence.

My dad thought it was not a smart idea, and he wouldn’t even talk about it. But when he finally saw that I was keen, he lent me $20,000, with no interest, to be paid off after the first two years. I paid it back frantically. And apart from that, I was never in the red.

My store has been slow but steady. Sooner or later, you’re going to lose a button and have to come in. The very poor come in, and the very rich come in. There’s one customer, she comes in regularly, with her chauffeur waiting outside, and she can spend $1,000 in 10 minutes. You just need her twice a year and it changes your bottom line. There’s also drag queens, brides, people making jewelry, people making doll clothes, guys working in leather—and the film industry, thank God for them! I sell about 12,000 buttons per month, which includes the mother-of-pearl buttons I sell in bulk to First Nations for regalia. Each button blanket takes 500 to 1,000 buttons.

About 20 per cent of my customers are men, and I didn’t expect that at all. If men have lost a button, they don’t know to go to a fabric store. They figure, if you lose a button, you go to a button store, right?

BUTTON BUTTON, 318 Homer St.