End of an eraButton Jewelers closing at year’s end
Photo by Joe Whiteside/ Daily Record Gaye Wood talks with a customer after selling her a cookbook on Tuesday. Prices at Button Jewelers have been reduced as it is going out of business at the end of this year.

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Frank Button's father had it right. Studying the economic trends of the era with uncanny acumen, he decided the two most lucrative professions his three sons could pursue would be as jewelers or as morticians.

Perhaps to no surprise, all three young men chose the jewelry field.

In the early 1940s, Frank and his wife, Evelyn, planted their stake in Ellensburg, establishing their jewelry business in the heart of downtown. For nearly 65 years - with innumerable engagement sets, countless anniversary gifts, and thousands of engraved sentiments as testament - Button Jewelers faithfully served a community that in turn came to be devoted to it.

After this Christmas, Button Jewelers will close its doors. Not as a victim of big-box merchandisers or unpredictable economic cycles but, said Gaye Wood, Frank's daughter, "It's just time for us retire and have some fun."

Not that working at and later running the family business hasn't been enjoyable in itself. The business has "definitely been a blessing from the Lord," says other daughter Penny Kelly. "It took our family through lots of good times."

Frank Button embraced his father's advice and attended a jewelry and watch-making school in Peoria, Ill. Upon completion, he went to work for Hawks Jewelers in Yakima and then opened his own store there, just as his brothers did in Wenatchee and Coulee City. In 1940, he and Evelyn came to Ellensburg and decided the small college town was where they would raise a family.

The couple purchased J.O. Thompson Jewelers on Pearl Street in 1942, about where the Dakota Caf/ is now. Frank tended the downtown clock located there. At the time the devices were more necessity than decoration.

"Not too many people had watches, which is why downtown clocks were so popular," Gaye said.

In 1952, the Buttons moved the business to its current location on the corner of Fourth and Pine.

"They were always together in the store," Penny recalled of her parents. And in turn, the store became another extension of home for Gaye and Penny, a place where they did much of their growing up.

"We could always come work with them, come down to the store when we were young," Penny added.

Frank died in 1962, leaving Evelyn a sole proprietor until Gaye and Penny joined her in the business in the late 1960s. Eventually Evelyn's daughters' spouses, their children and spouses, and even grandchildren all worked at the store at one time or another. After Evelyn died in 1987, Gaye and Penny were partners with their husbands. Penny's husband, Mike, is the store's gemologist, while Gaye's husband, Jerry, also helps out.

"He retired from the Ellensburg light department," Gaye said. "He'd been a silent partner long enough. I said it was time for him to come down and work here."

Often the six grandchildren would wait on customers, eager faces ready to help.

"Their noses barely got above the counter," Penny recalled.

No one seemed to mind, least of all the customers. And so the grandchildren - Mike, Evie, and Kim Kelly and Doug, Frank, and Craig Wood - learned the art, business and even the science of jewelry.

"Like my son, Mike - I found out he knew more about the jewelry than the help. He knew the colored stones and where they came from," Penny said.

With the exception of Evie, who still lives in the Kittitas Valley, the Kelly and Wood children moved elsewhere, choosing careers apart from the store.

In a larger scope, Button's situation is not all that surprising. According to the "Family Business Review," more than 30 percent of all family-owned businesses survive into the second generation. Twelve percent will still be going concerns into the third generation, and just three percent of all family businesses reach the fourth generation and beyond. Children, more often than not, find their own career interests outside the family business.

This December, as they have for so many Christmas seasons past, the Button clan will again be working together in the store.

"Christmas was the time we all got to be together," Penny says. "The kids would even take off time from their other jobs so we could all work together at Christmas."

But this will be the final holiday season at the store, and when it's done a downtown Ellensburg landmark will be no more.

Anyone who has a chance to visit with Penny and Gaye about the family business can hear their love for it in their voices and see it in their eyes of as they talk about their father, mother, children and their connection to the store. They smile when they recall memories of the kids pining to work the engraving machine, a seemingly enviable job until the tediousness became all too apparent. They have countless memories of the numerous customers who bought their wedding sets at the store, then returned years later to purchase an anniversary ring.

Buttons was, as business neighbor John Moser points out, the place to go.

"It was tradition," said Moser, whose men's clothing business has been across Fourth Street from Buttons for the better part of 40 years. "I bought my wife's ring there."

There's also a sense of peace emanating from the sisters about their decision and the anticipation of a new chapter in their lives.

"We'll be staying around. It's just time for us to retire," Gaye said.


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