Charles ‘Chuck’ Williams, 1915-2015
Charles “Chuck” Williams named his now-legendary stores Williams-Sonoma – and just by that possibly did more to draw attention to Sonoma than anyone else. Williams died on Saturday, Dec. 5. He was 100.
“Chuck was very proud of that little store in Sonoma,” longtime friend and founder of Tante Marie Cooking School, Mary Risley, told the Index-Tribune Monday. At the reopening a year ago of the original Williams-Sonoma on Broadway, the 99-year-old Williams marveled that his black and white tiles were still there.
Williams never forgot his humble background that included living through the Great Depression, his parents’ breakup, his father’s auto repair shop closure, and his father leaving the family, followed by the accidental death of his older sister after their mother moved the family from Florida to Palm Springs. All of this contributed to Williams’ unfailing kind consideration of others and generosity toward those suffering as he had, say those who knew him.
As a young man Williams worked selling dates on a ranch and then as a window dresser for Bullock’s and I. Magnin in Southern California. During World War II, Williams served as an airplane mechanic in India and East Africa. While living back in Los Angeles following the war, Williams and some friends visited Sonoma for a golf outing; he instantly fell in love with the town, bought property, built a house on MacArthur, and by the late 1940s had started his own construction and renovation business. When he bought the little hardware store on Broadway in Sonoma, he did all of the carpentry work and laid the famous black and white floor tiles himself.
It was on his first trip to Europe in 1953 when Williams developed his admiration for Paris’s cookware stores such as E. Dehillerin, with its array of French cooking implements and pots and pans.
Williams immediately sparkled with the idea of bringing French culinary abilities to America, and began to import everything he loved to his narrow little hardware store on Broadway.
His timing was impeccable, since Julia Child was also at that time introducing the art of French cooking to Americans through cookbooks and television. Their friendship was helpful, mutual and mutually beneficial both to themselves and to cooks everywhere.
According to Risley, when San Francisco women who visited Sonoma told him in 1958 that he should open a store closer to their homes, he asked: “What block should I be on?” They told him, “The same block as Elizabeth Arden,” because it was close to the renowned salon where they got their hair done.
He opened that store on Sutter Street near Powell in 1958 with friend Mike Sharp, and in 1959 hired his first employee, Wade Bentson.
Williams’ friends and former staff executives mention his kindness and attention to every single customer. Risley recalled that Williams “wrapped every Christmas gift himself, and even went to Cala Foods on Hyde and California streets to pick up spare cardboard boxes to ship merchandise in” after his first mail-order catalogue gave a huge jolt to business.
Jean Armstrong, now brand marketing director for Williams-Sonoma, said she remembers that on her first visit as a customer to the Sutter Street store, Williams spent more time telling her what she didn’t need, than trying to sell things to her.
Friends say Williams had an instinctive eye for what customers need. Sonoma residents Nancy Lang and Brandon Chase moved their now former wooden kitchen implement factory from Sausalito to Eighth Street East in Sonoma in 1986 after she inherited the business from its founder.
Lang said Williams was “always loyal, very gracious, and a true gentleman.”
“Chuck Williams personally selected and sold our upright wooden paper towel holder for more than 20 years,” said Lang, “and allowed Brandon and me to live a comfortable life.”
After taking in partners such as Edward Marcus of Neiman Marcus, the group incorporated and eventually sold a majority interest to close friends Howard Lester and James McMahan, with Lester becoming chairman and CEO. When they took the company public in 1983, they sold one million shares at $23, with many stock splits to follow. In 2014 the company reported $4.4 billion in revenue.
Lester’s widow, Mary Lester, still maintains their homes in Sonoma and Palm Springs.
Sondra Bernstein’s girl & the fig became Chuck Williams’ go-to restaurant in Sonoma.
“Over the years, I have been lucky to see him at his visits at the restaurant, always warm and lovely,” said Bernstein. “We were completely honored that the girl & the fig was able to have cooked for him for his 99th birthday – it was truly special and I know he loved the celebration.”
Bernstein notes how Williams “followed his passion and created an incredible legacy that offers everyone the access to gorgeous and functional items to create and serve fabulous meals.”
“I am proud that we have the original store back open in Sonoma,” said Bernstein. “I think that it is more important than ever that his history be remembered and shared and what better place than Sonoma chould it be!”
Chuck Williams said often, “If you love what you do, the world will fall in love with you.”
And Sonoma sure did. In fact, Williams was honored as the Sonoma Community Center’s “Muse” in 2013, in a celebration fundraiser organized by his friend Suzanne Brangham at Ramekins Culinary School.
Wade Bentson, that first Williams-?Sonoma employee, perhaps summed it up best:
“The final chapter of Chuck’s odyssey has closed. It surely was a legendary journey. We will cherish him always.”