If you live in the United States and love cooking and baking, then you are sure to know about Williams-Sonoma. What some of you may not know is that the big company that it is today, and which includes, among others, West Elm and Pottery Barn, started with one single shop in the small town of Sonoma, in the California wine country.
The story is very much an American success story, the American dream that called so many immigrants from all over the world, and one that saw its beginning at a time when passion and hard work were still enough to get you somewhere.
It all started back in 1947 when Charles E. Williams (known as Chuck) settled in Sonoma and opened a hardware store. A few years later, during his first trip to France, he fell in love with French kitchenware and began plans to import French cooking and cookware into the United states. In 1956 the hardware store became a cookware shop selling professional-quality kitchenware to American home cooks, and the first Williams-Sonoma store was born.
The store was a success and in 1958, encouraged by his own clients, Chuck Williams relocated it to San Francisco, where it soon became the go-to destination for food celebrities such as Julia Child and James Beard.
Incorporation as Williams-Sonoma came about in 1972, the same year of the launch of the mail order catalogue. In 1973, the second Williams-Sonoma store opened on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and Chuck Williams introduced the Cuisinart food processors to the American market both in stores and through the catalogue.
In 1978 Williams sold his share of the company to entrepreneur W. Howard Lester and businessman James McMahan, though he continued to serve as chairman until 1986, and remained involved in the company for the rest of his life, overseeing merchandise selection, making public appearances, and writing cookbooks.
In July 1983, Williams-Sonoma went public for the first time on the New York Stock Exchange, offering one million shares on the OTC Market at $23 per share. Williams-Sonoma currently owns and operates over six-hundred stores scattered around North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East.
Following a meticulous restoration, Williams-Sonoma re-opened the store in its original Sonoma location in 2014. Then 99-years-old Chuck Williams participated in the opening ceremony on October 2nd, wishing that he could still be the store manager. He passed away a year later, on December 5th 2015, aged 100. At this page on the W-S website, you can read more about Chuck Williams, as well as see images and a short video.
The current store location also includes what was Williams’ private home, which was adjacent to the original store, and is now connected to the current one. In the image above, you see the big oh-my-I-could-cook-up-a-feast-in-here test kitchen in the current store, while in the one below you see the lovingly restored and updated kitchen that belonged to the private residence. Though smaller, there is something about the home kitchen that I instantly loved, and it is not because of the glorious stove and the massive sub-zero refrigerator. Even all dolled up as a display for W-S merchandise, I love the more gathered, intimate feel of the home kitchen.
The rest of the home is a perfect showcase for the Williams-Sonoma Home department and interior design studio.
The backyard, now used for special events, has been beautifully recreated as an inspiring blend of easy-to-maintain California garden and entertaining space. As you walk through, you see beautiful decorative plants, but also edible plants, herbs, vegetable plots, and even raspberry bushes.
Essentially, the whole place, both indoor and outdoor, is more than just a store and a place where to hold cooking classes and private events; it is very much a source of inspiration. The store itself is not the largest I have ever visited, possibly the smallest so far, but because of its history, it has a feel unlike any of the others, and also features heritage cookware and one-of-a-kind items that can only be found here. I feel that Chuck Williams’ heart is still here, and the love he had for his work still imbues the place even after all these years.
I realize this sounds like, and should be, a sponsored post, but it isn’t. I have loved Williams-Sonoma stores since the first time I walked into one, and any one of them belong with my “happy places”. But since stepping through its doors soon after it re-opened, the Sonoma store has become a favorite, and I stop by almost every time I drive to Sonoma, even when I don’t need anything, just to have a look around and see what is new, and also what has changed in the residence section, especially the kitchen.
All of the above are the reasons why I am sharing this particular store with you. Though, if you live in the United States, you likely have a W-S store near you, this one is worth knowing and should possibly make your to-do list next time you visit the California wine country. You can easily find it not far from the Plaza at 605 Broadway, Sonoma.
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