St. Louis’ ButtonMakers Shop Celebrates Twenty Years in Business
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The ButtonMakers store, based on Cherokee Street, St. Louis, has taken an unlikely route to get where it is today.
It’s a story that began two decades ago, in which St. Louis shopkeeper Rebecca Bolte crossed the country from Florida to Washington before settling in her hometown. During her absence from Missouri, she lived in Florida as part of a DIY punk collective, watched her business grow in a Seattle warehouse, and even was royalty during some of the time she spent at the Democratic National Convention upset with those in charge of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Throughout all of this, ButtonMakers has been her financial backer – and as it hits its twentieth birthday this year, Bolte says she has every intention to keep it that way.
Forty-year-old Bolte says she left on her own at the age of nineteen, and ButtonMakers first started out as a screen printing company to duplicate CDs for Indiana’s Plan-It-X records.
“I got to know her through the band” This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb “,” says Bolte of Plan-It-X. “I lived with them in a punk collective in Florida and they were on Plan-It-X, I think, and that’s how I met these guys. They just needed someone to make their CDs – it’s like a DIY record label, you know? So we literally just got it – there’s a store in Seattle called RE-PC, and we just got that bank of computers and we literally just duplicated CDs this way, screen printed the labels on them, and sent them to Indiana. That’s how we started. ”
At the time, the company known as ButtonMakers was also based in Seattle, where Bolte referred to as “a windowless warehouse with loads of crazy, crunchy punks diving in dumpsters.” Over time, Plan-It-X tapped Bolte to print their shirts for her too. Soon they asked about buttons.
“So we went online looking for a place to buy equipment and we couldn’t find a place to sell that stuff,” explains Bolte. “We had to search the patent office to find a manufacturer. And so we got the equipment, fulfilled our customers’ orders, and it became clear to us that since there was no internet site for button making in 2001, we should start retailing too. ”
Bolte says she put together a section of her then-punk merch website just for machines and devices used to make buttons. It was soon sold out of everything.
“Most of our clients were like churches, schools, and nonprofits, and they probably weren’t particularly interested in all of the weird punk rock stuff we were selling,” laughs Bolte. “So we started buttonmakers.net to be a unit of its own and it just ended up taking over – it was so much more popular than any other thing we did that it ended up becoming its own cause.
“The biggest customers are nonprofits, school districts, municipalities – things like that,” she adds. “So people who just aren’t there [punk] World at all. ”
However, Bolte’s goods and services weren’t just popular with neighborhood organizations and the like. She was soon tapped to work on Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and even to work on the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
“We just got a call from MSNBC,” explains Bolte. “Well, the design company that hired MSNBC did brand activation at the Democratic National Convention and they hired us to make on-site buttons. So people came by and got their name on a button. We made well over 10,000 buttons in one day – it was incredible. And I almost spilled coffee on Jesse Jackson, it was great. ”
That close contact with Jesse Jackson wasn’t her only celebrity that week, however. One day as she and her team packed up and set off, they ran into hardball anchor Chris Matthews.
“We had worked through the entire congress. It was just wall-to-wall people. We scratched our bums and had to fly all the gear and everything out there – it was a lot of stuff, ”she says. “And the only way to get out is to just pack it all up and run your hand through that crowd. So we did that and finally made it to the one elevator that was the slowest elevator on earth. And we wait – it’s finally time to go home – and the door opens. We’re trying to work our way in there and a handler says, “No, no, no, no, Chris Matthews is in that elevator.” And I say, “Chris Matthews better get his ass over.” And they got really mad at me and closed the door. And then I got a call from the people who hired us and they were very upset with me about that. They said, “Were you rude to Chris Matthews?” I said, “I don’t know, I guess. We are sorry.'”
Obviously, business was doing well. But by 2011, their overheads got too high. That same windowless warehouse full of crust punches had shot up rent from $ 900 a month to $ 4,000. She then knew it was time to leave and she decided to return to her hometown.
“I love St. Louis. I’ve always felt like this is my home,” she says. “Seattle has never felt quite at home. Cherokee Street just called my name. I could move.” Back here and pay a third of the rent for a comparable room. My business is primarily an internet business, so not only is it cheaper to rent here, but all of my suppliers are closer. So transit is faster for shipping, inbound, and outbound – I can get packages to New York a lot faster, etc. So that was helpful, and I was able to buy a really nice house, raise a family, and really have a much better life here, just because it’s so much more affordable. ”
Bolte opened her store on Cherokee Street in January 2012. Since then, she has been a go-to resource for nonprofits, politicians, and punks – she has worked with many local bands, but also with local politicians, including Alderwoman Cara Spencer and former state representative. Bruce Frank. She even started a summer program called Pin Squad, where neighborhood kids come in and design their own buttons to take and sell. Then when those kids return to her with the money, she’ll hold it for them until the end of summer when she compares her savings dollar for dollar.
“They come to the store to charge their phones and use WiFi anyway. I thought I would try to teach them business and financial skills,” she explains. “You always have access to your money, but when you save it, it grows. And when you find a rush, even something as dumb as buttons, you can get by without the risk of getting locked up. ”
Bolte’s own goings-on had a huge hit at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shop’s customer base is broadly focused on individuals and organizations promoting events. This makes her and her team an additional industry supporting live events. With the constraints of gatherings that came with the pandemic, Bolte, whose business is proudly unionized, has been forced to lay off employees. It is currently only she and her partner Nicholas James who run things, with the latter taking over the business of sticker making.
But Bolte makes it clear without a doubt that the company she founded about twenty years ago is nowhere.
“It must have been difficult,” she says. “I think that punk rock ethic has definitely caught on because I only think when I have to pack and move to the basement – if I have to knock buttons out of my van on Cherokee Street, I’ll do that. You know what I mean? This company is not going anywhere. Really because I have no other options. So I have to make it work – and I will make it work no matter what. “
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