For iconic St. Francisville boutique Grandmother’s Buttons, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a “fasten-ating” about-face.
If you found yourself walking into Grandmother’s Buttons during this year’s Christmas in the Country weekend, you would have been hard-pressed to find a place to stand. The iconic jewelry maker and retail storefront was experiencing its busiest retail weekend in years. “We had easily a couple of thousand people come through the store,” exclaimed owner Susan Davis, who with her husband, Donny, has run the nationally-recognized button jewelry brand out of a historic bank building in the heart of their hometown since 1985.
Robust Christmas season sales are a vital piece of the puzzle for any business with a retail operation. But this year they’re especially meaningful for the Davis family because, less than two years ago, the COVID pandemic all but erased the wholesale business that made up the lion’s share of Grandmother’s Buttons’ sales.
“At the beginning of 2020, the main thrust of our business was selling to other small businesses,” noted Donny. “When COVID hit, a lot of those small shops just had to close. So, all that wholesale business just went away.” Grandmother’s Buttons had to make a transition to online sales in a hurry. “The PPP money not only saved jobs, it also helped us to transition and modernize fast, and to become more resilient for the future,” Donny said. “Without it, we wouldn't have had a chance.”
PPP was, of course, the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. Delivered through banks, the program delivered transformative support to more than 900,000 U.S. small businesses during 2020 and 2021. Like some 200 other local businesses representing almost 1,500 total employees, when the pandemic hit Grandmother’s Buttons applied for and received PPP funding through Bank of St. Francisville. They used the funds to make payroll and other expenses, while scrambling to redesign the company’s website to maximize its e-commerce potential.
The results have been dramatic. At the beginning of 2020, Grandmother’s Buttons’ business was around 65% wholesale and 35% retail. “Today, that’s literally flipped,” noted Donny, noting that the ramp-up of the online retail operation—which the PPP funding enabled the Davises to make, has opened the company up to a customer base that is literally global.
Now, two full-time and seven part-time staff working out of the old Bank of Commerce building at the corner of Royal and Prosperity streets, design and hand-assemble around 24,000 pieces of jewelry a year, and ship to retail customers as far away as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. For Susan and Donny, it’s a thrilling development that’s simultaneously taking them back to the company’s roots, and sling-shotting them into the future.
“Our product is a story-driven product,” Susan said. “When we were wholesaling most of our jewelry to others, we had no control of how that story was told. But when we sell to our customers directly, we get to tell our story, our way.”
Our Story, Our Way
What a story it is. In a half-finished room in the couple’s St. Francisville home, Susan launched Grandmother’s Buttons in 1985 using the contents of thirty-something boxes of vintage buttons collected by—you guessed it, her grandmother, Bettie Garrett. Thirty-seven years later almost all Grandmother’s Buttons’ jewelry is still made using antique and vintage buttons.
Most date from the Gilded Age (the 1880s through the 1920s) when, prior to the advent of plastic and zippers, almost every piece of clothing incorporated buttons made from metal and glass. Many were durable and beautiful enough to make them collectible. “The buttons were so pretty, people didn’t throw them away,” Susan said. “I kept thinking we’ll run out of buttons. I never thought there would be this many!”
Today, Susan still sources buttons from collections like her grandmother’s, all over the country.“Every button piece is created out of this store,” she noted, “The buttons themselves are almost all old, and almost all of the pieces and parts come from small American companies.” She explained that, prior to the rise of Chinese manufacturing, almost all costume jewelry (i.e. jewelry not made using precious metals) in the U.S. was made in Rhode Island.
“There are companies there that have been around since the turn of last century,” she said, “so we can go up there and buy the settings and casts, which is something I love to do.”
In the 2020s—the era of global supply chains and online everything—a hand-made product created using materials made entirely by American companies, is pretty rare. The fact that it’s happening right here, in a historic building located in the heart of St. Francisville, makes Grandmother’s Buttons a local treasure we can all be proud of.
PPP ... and People, too
Since Grandmother’s Buttons’ earliest days long before the coronavirus pandemic reared its head, the Davises’ bank has had a role to play in bringing stability and prosperity to their business. For example, in 2007, when the Home Shopping Network came calling and Grandmother’s Buttons suddenly had to go from making 60 of something, to making 600, Bank of St. Francisville was quick to extend a revolving line of credit. The couple turn to their bank for general guidance when facing difficult business or financial decisions, too.
“For me, that accessibility has always really mattered,” said Donny. “We were an unproven, unconventional business. But we got unconditional support from the get-go. I appreciate the support the bank gives the entire community. I think having a great hometown bank, just like a great school system, is one of the things that makes a community whole.”
To learn more about Grandmother’s Buttons’ origin story, visit grandmothersbuttons.com/pages/our-story.