Charles Edward Williams
October 2, 1915 - December 5, 2015
"Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man, his character determines the character of the organization."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Chuck Williams is the personification of Emerson's "single man"
His character and integrity define the company he founded.
Charles Edward Williams was born on October 2, 1915 in Jacksonville, Florida. The world was at war, and his early youth was spent in the midst of economic depression. Like so many others, this young man headed west in the hope of finding better conditions. In the desert of southern California he found employment with a family who operated a date farm. He completed high school and then moved on to Los Angeles and a job at l.Magnin and Company, an outstanding California retailer and a company whose founder, Grover Magnin, would be influential in Chuck Williams' future.
In the early 1940's, prior to America's entry into World War Il, Chuck Williams joined the Lockheed Company and traveled to India and the Near East doing airplane maintenance in support of the
British (and later the American) air force. When the war ended he moved to the small town of
Sonoma, California, obtained a contractor's license, and built and sold several houses. He also bought a small building which contained several small stores, and kept for himself the hardware store at the end of the row. The hardware soon gave way to cookware, and so began Williams-Sonoma in 1956.
Chuck and several of his friends in Sonoma enjoyed cooking together. He had learned cooking skills as a boy at his Grandmother's side. After the war a few members of the group traveled to France to enrich their culinary experience. Chuck was awed by the array of fine cookware, none of which could be found at home. He was the one who brought copper and porcelain and pots of all sizes to the American market. And much later, iconic items such as Cuisinart and Fini Balsamico among the countless items he discovered and imported.
His devoted Sonoma customers urged him to move to San Francisco, and in 1958 he did so. Service to his customers (friends) was the signature of the Williams-Sonoma store. Here, in his own words, is his business ethic:
"Right from the beginning, in 1958, when I opened the door at 576 Sutter Street in San Francisco for my first customers, I wanted them to enjoy their visit. I wanted to show them pots and pans that they may not have seen before. I wanted to answer their questions with knowledge and confidence. I wanted to remember their names. I wanted them as friends as well as customers. Over the years, that has not changed, It is still the foundation Williams-Sonoma is built on. Service to our customers!"
This dedication to service and quality was his hallmark and it became the goal of everyone who worked with him, It became the heart of the Williams-Sonoma culture, His long association with Howard Lester was one of mutual admiration and respect. Each man understood and admired the expertise of the other. Chuck's incredible merchandising skills and Howard's management ability were the forces that created the years of expansion without losing the original ideals of the unique kitchenware store that began in Sonoma.
Chuck Williams was a mentor to countless aspiring chefs and food writers, and a benefactor to numerous charitable organizations. On his eightieth birthday the Bancroft Library published an oral history, a detailed account of his life and achievements.
Recognition of his work and influence has come from all over the world. His office is filled with mementoes and citations, along with the numerous books which he edited in collaboration with Weldon Owen Publishing, and the countless cookbooks, old and new, which he collected over the years.
Chuck Williams has enriched the lives of all of us with his friendship and integrity. His legacy will endure and as he said, "No other business started so small and select then grew to its current level with the same customer base. It has not wavered from its original mandate of quality and outstanding customer service."
May it ever be so.
At his request there will be no services. Donations in Mr. William's memory may be made to 'SF Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund'.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle from Dec. 12 to Dec. 13, 2015.