She's got the whole world in her store

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Elizabeth Gilbert in the warehouse store she runs with her husband, Jose Nunes, surrounded by Javanese Buddhas and other exotic things from around the globe.

Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert is pedaling her bike in heavy heat (90-plus degrees) through the back paths of Frenchtown, N.J., her hair in pigtails, not looking anything like the woman who's appeared on Oprah.

Still, she is spotted. A couple of Eat, Pray, Love devotees are making their pilgrimage to Two Buttons, the 2,200-square-foot home emporium Gilbert owns with her husband, Jose Nunes. They are lost.

"Follow me," she motions, arms waving toward a weathered warehouse not far from the Delaware River you might never guess is a store that's open three days a week.

Two years have gone by since Eat, Pray, Love hit bookstores, and Gilbert and Nunes - readers of the book will know him as "Felipe," who restores her faith in love - have settled in these less exotic climes to create the next chapter of their lives.

"Two Buttons happened quite accidentally," Gilbert says, perched on an Indonesian teak bench, eating a banana. "Jose was always an importer [of gems], but he dealt in suitcases, not containers."

After the year of travel and self-discovery she chronicles in the book, she and Nunes were in Indonesia when she spotted a large stone head of Buddha she loved and wanted to buy.

"When you talk about large items, the shipping becomes expensive," she says. "We said, 'Well, you might as well add some other things to the container.' Our might-as-wells turned into two 45-foot containers. We found a warehouse here, and when we started unpacking, people found out about it and just came.

"It was kind of like, 'If you build it they will come.' It was a great way to enter a town."

Nunes takes guests around the colorful bazaar, filled now with merchandise from Indonesia, and offers each piece up with a story and any known provenance.

There is the "museum" section of antique statues and water and wine jugs from shipwrecked vessels (barnacles included) that date back from the 13th to the 19th century. And lush ironwood dining tables that many customers use outdoors. And antique Chinese porcelain and ceremonial objects, the most striking of which are a pair of 2-foot hand-painted, carved-wood rice gods typically brought to the harvest celebration. (Gilbert has given them to friends as a wedding gift.)

But among the best sellers are greenstone and limestone statues, from dragons to Shebas. Browse the shop's Web site (www.twobuttons.com) and you can see where the revered objects have landed in customers' homes (typically indoors or out in the garden).

Two Buttons has been quietly open for a year now, and a regular stream of locals tumbles in one recent Friday afternoon. Two hip teens snap up jewelry, while a fit fortysomething woman has come back for a second pair of gauzy cotton yoga pants.

"The pants are actually Thai fishermen's pants," says Gilbert, "but they are so comfy that you can wear them for yoga, and it turns out we have more yogis in this area than Thai fishermen."

Resting on a platform is a wooden Sumatran water taxi, its shell filled with sarongs, placemats and tablecloths.

Next to it, an Indonesian barbecue is on display. Nunes bought the piece without knowing its function until their Balinese mailman (we can't make this stuff up) told the couple what it was and how it is used.

Helping out at Two Buttons on weekends is Shea Hembrey, who greets customers, offering glasses of wine, a little historical tutorial as they browse, and a heavy drawl courtesy of a youth spent in Arkansas.

Hembrey paints Monday through Thursday and hauls around heavy, stone Buddhas, careful to select the proper places for these pieces he loves so much. Like Nunes, he can go on a colorful riff about each item in the warehouse - the hand-painted buffalo-skin puppets, or the rickshaw outside (but not for sale) that they want you to take a spin on. Nunes happily rode it in the local Memorial Day parade.

"Shea was an artist friend I met in at an artists' residency in Wyoming. He was painting, and I was writing Eat, Pray, Love." Gilbert says. "He knows much about Asian art, more than we do. We convinced him to move here."

Gilbert spends her weekdays working on her next book and pops into the store throughout the weekend.

"When I am not writing, I like coming here because it is the opposite of what I do," she says. "I am a broker of ephemera. When I am here, I can get lost in deciding whether or not we have enough Shebas or if we have enough bracelets. It is a nice break for me."

One of her favorite items at Two Buttons is a massive teak canopy-style bed intricately carved with dragons.

"It even smells like the places we have been in here," she says as she strolls through the store. "Each item carries a remembrance. It reminds me of the past but represents our new life here. This [store] has enabled us to put down roots and to be accepted. There is a wonderful Karmic comedy to landing here with 45 shipping crates. I mean, Italy, India, Indonesia, central Jersey. . . ."

Enter the lost pair who followed Gilbert on foot.

Turns out that in the spring, Susan Hugo, of Fort Washington, heard Gilbert and her author/sister Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Dairy Queen) do a reading at the Big Blue Marble bookstore in Mount Airy. That night, Hugo also learned about Two Buttons. So she has brought her friend Barbara Regal from Westchester, N.Y., to check the place out.

After talking with the author about books and presidential candidates, the three start browsing together. Gilbert picks up an Indonesian sarong.

"I made kitchen curtains out of these," she says proudly.

Next stop on the Gilbert/Nunes world tour is India in September, after which their finds will give Two Buttons a new look.

"I am excited to go . . . and shop for furniture and silks," says Gilbert. "[India] is a country full of exquisite things. Jose will probably continue to go to Bali once a year to shop, and I think the two of us will always travel."

But, for now, she feels like Frenchtown is home and wants to pay forward the kindnesses the locals have shown them by fostering their business.

"These little towns on the river are struggling. And Frenchtown is so special because there are no Jiffy Lubes or strip malls. Every shop you go in is privately owned, and the owner is working," she says.

"They are grateful to have us here, and we are grateful to be here."


Two Buttons

Two Buttons is at 1 Eighth St., Suite #4, in Frenchtown, N.J. The warehouse is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. - or when the Balinese umbrella is out on the front car park on Harrison Street, across from the elementary school. Information: www.twobuttons.com.

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