During Christmas in 1975 Mark got a job as supervisor with Williams-Sonoma’s burgeoning mail order business. Chuck Williams had started his Sonoma kitchen supply/hardware store in the late 1950’s then opened a second store in the City. In the early 70’s he began a holiday catalog that steadily grew in popularity.
The mail order operation had been seasonal up until then but they were making plans to go year round. Mark was in charge of running it from the basement of Mike Sharp’s antique store. Mr. Sharp was Chuck Williams’ partner and their stores were just a few doors apart on Sutter Street.
With Mark’s unerring eye for talent the staff was almost entirely gay men. And when he saw there was piecework involved he immediately thought of me.
The basement working conditions were primitive to say the least and, with the exception of downtown Bangladesh, I doubt if they would pass any governmental inspections today. But none of us really cared. We were happy to have a paycheck to fuel our partying and pay the rent (in that order).
Many holiday catalog traditions began in that basement, most notably the bay leaf wreaths. Mr. Williams had a supply of California bay leaf branches stashed on the small brick patio behind the building. We started every morning by counting the number of orders for the day then cut the branches and tied them up to form the wreaths. They had to be shipped fresh so they were always the first things to go out.
One day in the middle of our morning handicrafts someone noticed an aroma that was not bay laurel. We all agreed something was wrong and went to check our patio supply. Somebody’s dog had pissed all over our bay leaves. Wreath production took a hit that day though, regrettably, some may have slipped out to a few Beverly Hills grandees before we could catch them.
In 1975 Williams-Sonoma was not well-known and had a small, selective following. Many were from Hollywood and we would call out famous names as we packaged items for them. One was for Betty White who ordered a Valrhona slab. Our imaginations ran wild wondering what that chocolate would become in the hands of Sue Ann Nivens, The Happy Homemaker.
Celebrity chefs were still a decade away but Mr. Williams knew all the culinary stars of the day. People like Elizabeth David and Julia Child were constantly dropping into his store. When James Beard came to town he made a point to visit the mail order operation daily.
Mr. Beard was a huge, rotund man who would slowly negotiate the handful of basements steps to the landing where he would plop down to entertain us. From his perch he chatted us up as he ogled the young male flesh below.
He was charming and funny as he told stories of Manhattan back in the day. He’d seen Laurence Olivier on stage in the 1930’s and described how beautiful he was. He said the audience had been packed with gay men “and there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.”
The catalog had a lot of good things in it but contained some silly ones too. Like “Le Stop,” a metal round you placed in a pan to prevent things from boiling over. Whatever happened to just watching it? (Note to self: patent gadget called “Le Watching.”)
To relieve our tedium we gave people nicknames based on catalog items. The haughty Marketing Director upstairs was “Corn Dolly.” Our name for James Beard was “The Rolling Mincer.”