When Becka Brisbin moves between craft stations in her shop, the buttons on her lavender vest sound like shells shifting together in ocean waves.
Children’s art, punk rock references, a she/they pronoun pin and local television icon Ron Anders are among the featured pieces. The buttons cover the front and sides of the vest, only breaking in the back to frame a portrait of Muppets creator Jim Henson, captioned with “Master of Puppets,” an ode to Brisbin’s favorite Metallica album.
Brisbin’s shop, Becka Makes Buttons at 950 Commercial St. S.E., is just as eclectic. Its walls host dinosaur-themed toys and decorations, like a mannequin with a triceratops head wearing even more buttons than Brisbin. There’s color everywhere.
“If I could take my heart, and show you, this is what it would look like,” she said.
To her, and to many customers who have walked through the door since it opened in 2021, buttons are a format for self expression, a tool to feel safe and a way to build community.
Brisbin’s shop caters to people in search of respite. She’s laid out resources for youth programs, mental health and addiction treatment. The shop also hosts Outright Mental Defectives Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for LGBTQIA+ people on weekends.
She also offers free snacks and drinks. Making a button costs $2 to $5, and she knows she’ll never get rich from it. Some kids pay in spare change saved over weeks.
“I did grow up in shelters and on the streets of Salem, having experienced homelessness as a kid, you just find that sometimes little things like that make all the difference,” she said. Plus, when kids get snacky they get antsy. “I don’t think there’s enough free things out there, or low-cost things out there for parents that are struggling.”
Her shop is a place where anyone is welcome to relax and take as long as they’d like to make a button.
A little over a month ago, Ivan Gomez asked Brisbin for help. As a Afghanistan military combat veteran who now works as a vocational rehabilitation specialist with the state, he said he was immediately impressed by the information on resources the shop had in a prominent place by the front door.
As someone with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, Gomez said he can get overwhelmed in public spaces.
After some planning, Brisbin made him a yellow button reading “DISABLED COMBAT VET WITH PTSD GIVE ME SPACE.” Gomez pins it over his jacket where it can be easily read.
“There’s no one else who could have brought grace to this idea and what people are going through, except Becka,” he said. “When you tell her you want a button and what it is, she just really knows what she’s doing.”
He’s already seen positive change from it, with easier trips to the grocery store.
“What I’ve learned from being around (Brisbin) is that when you’re willing to be open and honest with other people, people are really receptive to that,” he said. He said her work has also helped him with sobriety and spending issues.
Brisbin has had over thirty years of practice in button making and community building. It all started with one button, gifted by a childhood hero.
As a kid growing up in Salem in the 80s, she was among many watching “The Ramblin’ Rod Show.”
Its host, Rod Anders, made his career in local radio broadcasting, and his slapstick comedy show always booked out a full audience of kids. He celebrated birthdays, played cartoons, and held smile contests. He was an icon to many, Brisbin said.
Brisbin was three years old when – on a visit to a fair – she and her grandfather came across Anders filming a commercial.
“I was like, really excited. And then the cameras went off, I guess they got the signal and I got to go,” she said. “I bolted, and just gave him the biggest hug.”
Anders handed her her first button, inspiring a lifelong love and career.
At eight, she got her hands on her first button maker while at the Boys & Girls Club on Northeast Summer Street, but the old machine couldn’t keep up with her fervor. At ten, she found another at the Aumsville Corn Festival. She used it until festival staff asked her to spare some materials for the other kids.
As she grew up, she got into the punk music scene. She was drawn to button makers at every festival and event, sometimes at the expense of seeing performers.
She was inspired, and eventually bought her own maker. When she began touring as a musician in the 2010s, she said would connect with other bands using MySpace – “that’s old school” – and would offer to make them buttons to bring to shows.
She started traveling with a maker, and in 2016 at the Punk Rock Bowling festival in Las Vegas she set up a booth. By the end of the day, there was a line around the tent and people were asking her to doodle animals and phrases like ‘punk’ on scrap paper, to turn into buttons.
“My buddy pops his head in… and he’s like ‘whatever it is you’re doing, it’s working. I think you’ve found your niche,’” she said.
She started doing community events in the Pacific Northwest, and started working with parents and educators. After running a shop in Tacoma and online, she moved back home to Salem in 2021 and found a retail space.
When designing the Salem location, she thought of her favorite places to shop as a kid: the Razzle Dazzle card shop, which once sold cards for pennies.
Now back home, she said she was hungry for a community. She started working with HOME Youth Services, a shelter program she used as a teen, hosting button making parties and fundraisers.
“I love to create and inspire creativity. I love to encourage people that they can do anything they want. I tell people I’m establishing genuine human connection through the art of pin-back buttons,” she said. “People don’t really get it until they come here and make a button with me.”
Brisbin is heavily involved in the community, especially youth services around Salem. She also serves on the board of the Recovery Outreach Community Center and is also the co-founder of Punx in the Park, a resource fair and music festival returning to Marion Square Skate Park on September 16.
Brisbin lets people express themselves. Customers will bring their own supplies, like fabrics and dried flowers, to experiment. She said she sees the store as a creativity playground.
When kids come in, she engages by asking what they like. She probably has a sticker or magazine with it on hand, whether their interests are flowers, Snoopy or Pokémon.
She said a lot of her customers are children with autism, and she enjoys seeing them open up when given the time to create, and the reassurance that it’s okay to mess up and try again.
“I love music, and I love art, and I love helping people,” said Brisbin, who has dealt with her own mental health and addiction issues. “Really, all I want to do is spread love and joy and help people to see that they can be more than what they are.”
She said she doesn’t feel like she’s doing anything massive with her work.
“But I know what I do helps people, and it helps me. And, for that, it’s cool,” she said. “I think everybody just wants to be seen, everybody just wants to be heard. And it’s pretty powerful when you do something and it works in that way. The way I see it, I’m going to be making buttons until my arms fall off.”
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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.