We slip into Knopf Paul one frosty afternoon. The proprietor stands behind his old-fashioned cash register, deep in conversation with a woman frowning over a few spools of thread. The ceilings are high, and boxes of buttons reach right up to the top.
The shelves are a miniature essay on the joy of minor things. S. heads for the tiny buttons in shapes of roses and daisies. Dutch tourists enter and start pulling at boxes. The eponymous Paul reprimands them gently: Be careful with the buttons; they're old. Let me know what you need to see.
The woman behind the counter lays out my gray cardigan, remarking on how heavy it is. We consider wooden buttons made from salvaged propellors and buttons made from coconut shells and dried chestnuts. Gradually we drifted towards the narrow drawers which hold the mother of pearl. She frowns. These buttons you have now are too big, she said. She goes up a ladder and brings down squarish buttons with rounded corners, which we like, but then we decide the shade of yellow is too pronounced.
Ten minutes later, she finds them in one of the topmost baskets. Round, with three dips around the middle, a creamy ivory. We smile. So often these institutions devolve into shadows of themselves. The warmth and care of our little exchange fills me with a strange tenderness.
I buy them, along with some fuchsia thread and three yellow buttons for S, and the saleswoman packs everything into a small, neat bag, then we set off on our way.