Fascinating fasteners Button business: Once, the Morton Schenk Co.'s biggest customers were store alteration departments and clothiers' seamstresses. Times have changed, but it's still the place to go for buttons.

February 12, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's biggest button box is the aging but still vigorous Morton Schenk Co., the place where tailors head for elusive little circles of pearl, plastic, rhinestone, bone and metal.

And let's not forget the zippers, belt buckles and the myriad other things associated with sewing and dry cleaning.

Cleaning and tailor's supplies outsell buttons 10 to 1, but to the walk-in retail customer, the old business at 412 W. Baltimore St., due south of the Lexington Market and the Hippodrome Theatre, is still the great "House of Buttons."

Customers of a Baltimore area tailoring supply house believe that its ceiling-high shelves hold an example of every clothes button that ever fastened a collar or secured a pair of pants.

"People come and try to match the button they've lost. Most of the time, because of the millions and millions of buttons in existence, we can't match it exactly," said Victor J. Schenk, whose father, Morton, began the business in 1928.

"It's simply not true. We don't have all the buttons people think we do. But you can't tell them we don't have what they are looking for or are trying to match. They insist. And spend a long time looking," said Charles Wallace, a Schenk's employee.

The House of Buttons delights in its age.

The paint flakes down from the pressed-tin ceiling. The cabinets are stacked high with a dizzying array of buttons neatly sub-classified by color and material.

The air smells faintly of dust, time and cleaning fluid. The small displays in the window look as if they haven't been changed since the days when a suit came with two pairs of pants. Visitors do not question the fact this building was constructed 139 years ago.

The Schenk buildings are known for another reason besides zippers and collar buttons.

The place is a pair of 19th century cast-iron buildings -- one built in 1857, the other in 1876 -- and joined together. The westernmost one, 414 W. Baltimore St., was the home of a cigar-manufacturing company owned by the family of H. L. Mencken.

"The business isn't what it used to be," said Mr. Schenk, who once practiced domestic law. In the 1960s, when his father became ill, he assumed the responsibility of running the company.

"When Hutzler's [department store] was open, the women would select their dressmaking goods and buy their patterns," he said. "Then they would come down here and select their buttons and buckles. Price was no object."

dTC Schenk's biggest customers, however, were the stores themselves. Schenk's supplied the alteration departments at the big stores and the seamstresses who cuffed pants at Warner's, K. Katz and Bernard Hill. Manufacturers such as London Fog and Misty Harbor -- and, more recently, the Merry-Go-Round chain -- bought goods from Schenk's.

Today it's different. Naisha Vinson, a 21-year-old Baltimore City Community College student taking a course in visual merchandising, walked in last week.

"This is an amazing place," she said after selecting a set of black-and-gold buttons. Her tab was less than $4.

A few minutes later, an elderly woman spent 35 minutes with a salesman. She bought 83 cents worth of small black buttons.

A few minutes later, a family of Korean dry cleaners came in. They spoke in Korean with Mr. Wallace, who knows some key phrases and terms. They spent more than $100 on tailoring and cleaning supplies but bought no buttons.

"My father often bought huge quantities of manufacturers' closeout buttons. Each year, the button industry used to change its lines. When it did, we would buy the previous year's inventory. It's funny, many of the buttons were no longer being made when we had them new.

For every ruby red or celery green dress button Schenk's sells, maybe 1,000 plain white shirt buttons go out the door in plain cardboard boxes. Those commercial sales are the heart of the button trade; it's the button exotica that deliver the romance.

For example, there are buttons made of black jet glass, ivory nuts, bone, pearl and abalone. The majority are plastic and metal. They sell for 10 cents to $12 apiece, most for less than $1.

Asked whether he keeps a button box at his home, Mr. Schenk didn't hesitate: "No. I throw loose buttons out right away."

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