Two Buttons, the Frenchtown, N.J.-based import store, promises “Come for the day and see the world.”
These days, though, customers’ most often-asked question is a breathless, “Will Liz be in today?”
Women who have read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, “Eat Pray Love” or seen the movie, starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert, hope to catch a glimpse of the store’s co-owner, whose book now has more than seven million copies in print. Publicity surrounding the 2006 book and the movie that premiered in August have made Gilbert an icon—and a magnet for customers.
“There’s no doubt her celebrity has increased business,” said Susan Freddie, operations manager of Two Buttons. Gilbert often works in the shop, which she opened with her husband, José Nunes, several years ago in an old ceramics factory.
Now, frequently away on tours for “Committed,” her newest book, she is there only occasionally.
But it takes more than celebrity to run a successful business. It’s backed with a strategic marketing plan that’s made the business highly visible. The witty and fun-loving couple, who fell in love in Bali (and whose romance is featured in the book), have made their personalities a hallmark of their business.
It is even present in the distinctive red-and-yellow Two Buttons logo, which represents a time when a Laotian priest told them they had so much love for life they needed nothing more than two buttons in their pockets to get by in the world.
The store is a physical representation of the couple’s love of travel, beauty, handmade artwork and each other.
Gilbert said the business actually had an accidental beginning.
“We are obsessed with beauty,” she told BusinessNewsDaily. “And we believe the most precious objects to be found are those made by hand. We wanted to send things home and we had to send a whole crate so we thought why not fill it with things we love and sell those that won’t fit in our home?”
Together, Gilbert and Nunes gathered Buddhas, statues of exotic goddesses, ceremonial objects, furniture, bowls, masks, puppets, a rainbow of silks and other textiles in Java, Bali, India and Thailand and had them shipped to a rented warehouse.
When they first opened the doors, Nunes, an experienced marketer, placed a yellow three-tiered Balinese umbrella by the road and the curious began to trickle in. The trickle grew to a stream and Two Buttons upgraded to a newer 7,000-square-foot building along with a warehouse nearly as big, both packed with treasures from the East.
“I’ve been moving around 400-pound Buddhas instead of carrying gems as I did as a younger man,” said Nunes, a former Brazilian gem dealer. The ceremonial umbrella still beckons the curious and colorful banners flutter around the giant Buddha outside Two Buttons’ entrance.
The store is an unconventional one and its business practices match. Advertising is limited to colorful postcards sent to a mailing list of about 6,000 two or three times a year when new merchandise arrives.
“The direct mail is old-fashioned,” said operations manager Freddie, “but customers seem to like it. They even collect the postcards.”
There’s no telephone . “We don’t need one,” Freddie said. “We don’t pack. We don’t ship. The customer has to come here. There’s a conscious effort to make a visit to the store an adventure.”
“We want to make it fun. When people come in they have to walk through a curving path lined with Buddhas before emerging into the main room. That was intentional. We meant it to be a passageway into an adventure. And it is -- people spend hours in here,” Freddie said.
“It’s kid-friendly, too,” she added. “We serve popcorn on weekends and José offers small cups of wine to the adults.”
Gilbert and Nunes chose their location carefully. Frenchtown, a handsome riverside town, its streets lined with Victorian homes, has become a tiny tourist mecca and an escape for day-trippers. Customers drive to Frenchtown from New York City, Philadelphia, Trenton and their suburbs. Some come from as far as Delaware and Washington, D.C., and beyond. Some even arrive on the bicycle trail that runs along the Delaware River behind the store.
Having such a unique product assortment, and the draw of a celebrity author, has allowed Gilbert and Nunes to run the store according to their own schedule. The store is only open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed during January and February for extended buying trips. Merchandise comes from small shops and individual artists and craftsmen. Once the Two Buttons buyers have completed their purchases, agents in each country pack and ship the goods.
“Importing is truly difficult,” Freddie said. “José knows what you can and can’t bring in. He’s taught me that, but each case is different. It’s something you can only learn by doing, so it’s a lot of trial-and-error.”
In spite of the learning curve, Two Buttons thrives on the excitement of receiving each new shipment. “I can’t wait for my crates to arrive,” said Freddie, who just returned from a buying trip to India. “It’s that kind of excitement that keeps any small business alive and growing.”