This feature is the second in Chuck’s Story, a series chronicling the life of Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams, who celebrates his 100th birthday on October 2. This post comes to us courtesy of Laura Martin Bacon, a writer, creative consultant, and Chuck’s longtime friend.
When it comes to building traditions (and everything else), Chuck Williams will tell you about the importance of a good foundation—and turning every challenge into both a learning experience and an opportunity.
A lot of this wisdom came from Chuck’s life as an American teenager during the Great Depression. “Happiness was in short supply back then,” Chuck says. “My father’s auto-repair business tapered off and finally closed. Not finding work in North Florida, he decided that the family should pack up and move to California.”
In Southern California, Chuck found farm jobs picking cherries, apricots and later in the season, almonds. “Even though I was working for pennies, I liked being in the orchards,” he says. “I still remember standing on a ladder with sunshine and leafy branches all around — and the sweet taste of those cherries pulled right off the tree.”
Chuck’s mother and 18-year-old sister Marie also found jobs, but his father was still unable to find work. “My father felt he was a burden on us,” Chuck says. “He finally just left me, my mother and my sister to fend for ourselves. I saw him only once after that. Consequently, I grew up pretty fast.”
Soon afterward, Chuck’s mother and sister moved to Palm Springs, but Chuck stayed behind to keep working. That same summer, Chuck’s sister died from complications after being hit in the head with a baseball at school. “There was nothing they could do in those days. Within two weeks, Marie was gone. My mother moved back to Florida to live with my grandparents. I had my job, so I stayed out here in California,” Chuck recalls. “In other words, I’ve been on my own since I was 16 years old.”
“Those weren’t easy times, but I did begin to experience the things that influenced me many years later when I opened Williams-Sonoma,” Chuck says. “I moved in with the family who owned the date farm where I worked. I began working in their roadside shop, both helping customers and packing dates and grapefruit.”
For the next five years, Chuck lived at Sniff Gardens with the kind-hearted Dana and Abby Sniff and their young son Stanley. There, Chuck helped Abby in the kitchen and Stanley with his homework. He fixed things around the house and learned carpentry. He acquired a lifelong love of books and newspapers—and completed his high-school education.
Chuck also continued to work at the Sniff’s date farm and in their retail shop, which had an 18-seat soda fountain that served date milkshakes, fresh fruit juices and a few baked goods. Chuck gave his careful and courteous attention to every customer (including Hollywood stars like Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland and Walter Pidgeon) — and even helped the Sniff family create a catalog and start a mail order business.
“I became expert at dealing with customers,” Chuck says. “I’ve always liked to do things for people, and I made a point of learning all about what it meant to give good service.” Chuck went on to put his newfound retail knowledge to work in department stores, including Bullock’s and I. Magnin. As always, whatever job Chuck had, he made sure he learned to be the best at it.
“I took it on myself to deal with things” is a phrase Chuck uses a lot when he talks about those days, and all the days afterward. With the advent of World War II, Chuck attempted to enlist in the Air Force. But the examining doctors said he had a thyroid condition and wouldn’t sign him up. “I was anxious to do something for the war effort, so I got a job on the assembly lines for Lockheed Aircraft, and later volunteered to be part of its traveling maintenance crew,” he says.
During World War II, Chuck spent four years as a civilian volunteer working as an airplane mechanic stationed in the Middle East, East Africa and India. “I was pretty busy, but I managed to develop a taste for investigating the countryside in my free time,” Chuck recalls. “I visited small towns and villages to sample the local foods, coffees—and some of the strongest homemade alcohol I’ve ever had.”
After the war, Chuck returned to Los Angeles, where he put his mechanical and carpentry skills to work helping a local friend build houses. “Shortly afterward, I hooked up with some of my overseas buddies for a golf trip to the Northern California town of Sonoma—and I just fell in love with the place,” Chuck says. “I soon moved there, bought a small piece of property, and built a house for myself.”
“After that, I immediately got my contractor’s license – and by 1953, I had built or renovated quite a few houses for other people and was living pretty comfortably as a contractor in Sonoma.”
As he built a life for himself, Chuck was building traditions. The most noteworthy of all was soon to come: it was the pioneering culinary tradition that would one day become Williams-Sonoma — an idea that was born on Chuck’s first trip to Paris in 1953.
Tune in tomorrow for the third part of this four-part series on the life of Chuck Williams.
Select photos from Merchant of Sonoma, by William Warren.