Street Smart Chicago

On the Button: Busy Beaver Button Co. gets busier

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Photo: Ray Pride

Photo: Ray Pride

On an overcast, humid, Chicago late-summer Saturday afternoon along Armitage Avenue, it’s closing in on a hundred degrees. I arrive a few hours after the cupcakes and champagne and ribbon-cutting with 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon, but the door to the new storefront location of the Busy Beaver Button Co. is in motion. Pale middle-aged men in camo shorts wander the corner, shirtless and smoking. On the other side of the street, a shoe shop offers “Lady’s Shoes.” On the corner, half a sign on an empty storefront advertises a “queria.” The fresh wooden front of Busy Beaver isn’t treated or varnished yet, smelling nicely of lumberyard.

Forty or fifty Beaver friends mingle inside, a spree of barelegged women and men, flip-flops and shoulder bags bold-bright in Crayola colors, wine and beer and cookies and a baby Akita and human babies. A row of half-a-dozen vending machines displays a new gold line of buttons. The crowd’s a teeming lesson in what to throw on in case of swelter. But serious economics underlie the festivities.

“My bank really pulled through. It was very stressful,” owner Christen Carter tells me amid a stream of well-wishers. The company benefited from a Small Business Loan, as well as part of the TIF program, SBIF, that pays half the renovations. There were also inducements for green elements including the framework for solar elements in the future. “Geothermal cooling-heating was twice what conventional [would cost]. Maybe in five years if we save up, we can have the geothermal [running so that] we won’t have to rely on electricity.”

Photo: Ray Pride

Photo: Ray Pride

Turning sunset, golden light falls on the shaded backyard, evergreens ringed with mulch, two feet of organic topsoil underfoot. Busy Beaver is 14 years old. Carter lived in London and was in a garage punk band called The Budget Girls and went to shows almost every night. She discovered buttons (or “badges”) and had become friends with Guided by Voices. Running into Bob Pollard after she’d moved to her parents’ Dayton home, he promised to be her first customer. She had a job set as a coffee-shop waitress, “and I said, hey, maybe I’ll do it!” Finding equipment and customers wasn’t as simple in 1995, in early days of Internet commerce. “I said, ‘When I’m 30, I’m not making buttons for bands anymore,’” she says, laughing, “and that’s come and gone for quite a while. Now my goal is to get everybody to wear buttons.”

A call goes up: a keg’s run out, and it’s time to support the old-fashioned liquor store down the street by buying some thirty-packs of PBR. (Ray Pride)

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