Alan Rosenzweig started collecting buttons 50 years ago when he was just 12 years old as a competition with his friend Bobby.
Bobby got out to the early lead with 70 buttons to Rosenzweig’s 50, but Rosenzweig refused to be defeated. He nearly tripled his stash to 130 while Bobby stagnated at 80 before eventually conceding defeat and giving his collection up to Rosenzweig.
“I just never stopped,” Rosenzweig said. “I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to start collecting buttons for the rest of my life.’ It just kind of happened.”
Fifty years later, his collection has grown to nearly a quarter-million buttons.
Rosenzweig is not a passive collector.
Any store he walks into, any restaurant he eats at, any vacation he’s on is an opportunity to get more buttons. He’ll even walk up to strangers on the street and ask them for the button off their shirt.
He’s also a flea market regular.
“I go to the flea market every Sunday,” he said. “I never miss.”
A good day at a flea market can net him hundreds of new buttons, Rosenzweig said.
“It's like fishing,” he said. “You go every weekend and you try to catch something. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't.”
Rosenzweig has done pretty well at a particular market in downtown Santa Rosa, thanks in large part to Earl Gwynne. In the six months he’s been going there, he said he has bought more than 500 buttons from Gwynne, and the two men have become friends: sharing stories of their kids, where they grew up, and the news of the day.
Rosenzweig has done some buying and trading on eBay, but he is not much of a fan. He prefers the community feel of seeing the same people every week at the flea market and searching for his buttons.
“The hunt is more fun,” he said of flea markets. “On eBay, everything is right there. It’s not much of a hunt.”
A Building All Their Own
When Rosenzweig and his wife bought their house in Sebastopol a few years ago, he had a few requirements. He needed a workshop, space to keep chickens and ducks, a garden and a building for his button collection.
Yes, a whole building.
The unassuming building previously served as a living quarters with a bathroom, wood-burning stove, kitchen and bedrooms. Now, the walls of the main room are covered floor to ceiling with sheets of burlap filled with buttons of every shape, size, color and message.
“Anybody who comes to the house, a maintenance guy, electrician, I’ll say, ‘Hey, I got to show you something,’ ” Rosenzweig said. “We'll go in the button room and I won't tell them what I'm showing them until they get in there. And they get in there and they go, ‘Oh wow, oh wow.’ They’ve never seen anything like this.”
Each burlap sheet is home to a different category of buttons: presidential campaigns, sports, colleges, social justice, movies, Disney, advertising, music and more and more.
But most of the 40,000 buttons he has here (another 200,000 duplicates are in boxes at his apartment in San Francisco) aren’t on the wall. They’re in boxes and bags on the floor waiting to be sorted. Rosenzweig said if all he did was eat, sleep and put up buttons, it would take him two to three years to get his whole collection mounted.
“Of course I'll never get them all up because I'll always be going to a flea market and getting more,” he said with a laugh.
There is one slice of wall not covered by burlap and buttons. It is in the far-right corner of the main room, and it is a door to a smaller room that houses another one of Rosenzweig’s collections.
“Anything that has John F. Kennedy’s image on it, I will buy,” Rosenzweig said as he stood surrounded by hundreds of pieces of JFK memorabilia.
Numerous busts of the late president sit on a shelf, and several colorful rugs bearing his likeness encircle the room, manufactured around the world. He even has two “Jack and Jackie O’ Lanterns.” They are orange Halloween candy holders with the president and first lady’s faces “carved” into the plastic.
Politics has been a fascination for Rosenzweig as long as he’s been collecting. He worked on Hubert Humphrey’s unsuccessful 1968 presidential campaign as a 13-year-old.
“When the campaign was over and it was clear that he lost the election, they started dumping boxes of buttons and other political items from the campaign into the dumpster,” Rosenzweig recalled. “And I said to myself, ‘I don't think it belongs in a dumpster.’ ”
He went dumpster diving and took home hundreds of Humphrey buttons, which helped jump-start his fledgling collection.
“I started working on political campaigns for local assemblymen and congressional campaigns and getting buttons from those, and I just took off with it,” Rosenzweig said. "Fifty years later, I have over 40,000.”
'I See My Whole Life'
Most of the people in Rosenzweig’s life have supported his collecting, but it hasn’t always gone over well.
For instance, there was the period he was living with his then-wife in San Francisco. They had a house with three bedrooms: one for his daughter downstairs, one for him and his wife upstairs, and another upstairs for his buttons. When the couple had another baby, his wife wanted to put the newborn in the second bedroom upstairs and move the buttons downstairs. Rosenzweig begrudgingly agreed.
“I really love my daughter, and I love having her, and I'm glad she was born, but I didn't want to move my buttons,” he said.
It’s not surprising that Rosenzweig feels such a strong connection to a collection that has been with him for decades, through cross-country moves, the beginnings and ends of relationships, and everything in between.
“People that know me know me as the Button Man," he said. “It's the one thing that's been continuous in my life since I was 12 years old.”
Rosenzweig stands in his button room, surrounded by his collection. He points to the button New York City Mayor Ed Koch handed him off his own shirt at a rally. He turns to the buttons he got at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Then, he looks at the French Canadian buttons he collected when he lived in Canada.
“It just keeps my past, my history alive with me all the time,” Rosenzweig said. “I come in here, and I see my whole life.”