Sian Ballen, Lesley Hauge and Jeff Hirsch
“I don’t want to tell you too many of my secrets,” said William Meyer, who together with his partner Wayne Adler, own the two long-established eponymous home décor stores, William-Wayne & Co. But he would tell us that the key to business success is for customers to come and “take a little piece of the fantasy … I want to strike that warm, fuzzy spot from your youth or your past.” The stores are indeed something of an anomaly or even a throwback to a more gracious era—there is something comforting about the fact that the stores clearly do great trade in things like place cards, pretty plates and cocktail napkins. Setting a nice table, we were almost admonished, is essential. “If you have children or grandchildren, it’s your responsibility to create that tradition. It’s family!” So there.
You grew up in Louisville—what was it like growing up there?
Um … very sheltered. I had a private Catholic school education and I spent my summers on my great-grandparent’s farm in Eastern Kentucky. It was truly a working farm. I would go down there and get covered with mosquito bites. When I was growing up, I had grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family, all still living.
What were your farm duties?
Eating fried chicken.
So we’re curious, in this age of online shopping, how someone keeps up a bricks-and-mortar shopping experience, a store like yours.
Well, I am online, a site called Taigan, and that has worked out pretty well for us but as long as I can continue to maintain a store space, I think that what we do offer is something truly unique. It’s sort of Old World, old-fashioned, sort of carriage trade.
It is very Old World—I’m wondering if people are drawn in by that because you see so little of it now.
I have a very large European customer base. I have South Americans, [customers from] Brazil; I hear often that is their first stop.
That’s a bit ironic—South America was once called the New World.
Their children also come. It’s not that I don’t have young customers. I have a very successful bridal registry.
Do people still want their full compliment of traditional dinner services and crystal and silver?
People are buying a stack of this and a stack of that. It’s not often I get a customer who is willing to buy twelve dinner plates.
[Sian] I did the whole nine yards when I got married. I had the registry at Tiffany’s—I have unbelievable 12-piece place settings… crystal, the lot. But I don’t use it. I feel like it’s definitely from another era. Are you saying they do do it?
Well … yes.
How would you describe your taste?
I think it’s European. I’m not necessarily into Victorian furniture but the Victorians had a piece of flatware for every purpose and I do bring a bit of that into William Wayne.
What’s the difference between your downtown store and your uptown store?
I think my downtown customers are more bookish and more bohemian—they shop less for sport. The uptown customer might be looking to satisfy some craving they have. We are fortunate to have customers who could shop anywhere in the world—a real who’s who. I don’t always know who the “who” is.
So how did you get started?
I worked at a table-top company in Soho called Wolfman Gold. I came to New York and I walked into their original store on the corner of Broome and Wooster and I fell in love. It was a magical French escape. It smelled good. It was sensual and unusual and I wanted to work there. I already had a natural inclination for all of that. When I was a young man, my parents were very concerned that I was never going to amount to anything because I was not a very good student. My mother arranged for me to take an adult education class in upholstery. She bought me an old wing chair and she put me in the car with the chair. And when I did that chair, she bought another wing chair and she made me take the course again.
How old were you?
Oh, about twenty or twenty-one. I already knew how to use a sewing machine. I made curtains and I could do upholstery. I made pillows as a sideline for some decorators. I don’t do that anymore but I could. I got the machine out last Saturday night—I hate to tell you that I was home on a Saturday night—but I had thirty yards of grosgrain that I sewed on to the shoulders of the shoulder protectors in my dressing room.
That’s hilarious, that you did that on a Saturday night.
I bought natural canvas shoulder protectors at the Container Store and then I went to Tinsel Trading and bought 3-inch grosgrain to decorate them—for you all!!
Oh we’re flattered! Do you like doing practical things?
Well … I don’t have to do it anymore. But all the skirted tablecloths with trim that are in my stores—I made all of those things. I’m very handy. If you have three homes, you have to be able to fix things.
How do you divide up what you do and what Wayne does?
Well, Wayne’s a huge support for me. You know, I’m a little high-strung. He is much calmer and really keeps me in check. We do all of our shopping together although vintage and antique shopping, I do nearly all of that because he doesn’t want to spend the money.
I have often wondered if I had my own store, if I would have to include things that I didn’t like but that I knew would sell. Is that true of owning a store?
I really only buy what I like. For sure. Oh no. I could not sell anything to you that I genuinely don’t think is great for you. I don’t want to sell some junky thing to you just to make a sale. Absolutely not. Never. No.
Do you like what you do?
I’m a born merchant. I’m a worker. I’m a roll-my-sleeves-up-open-up-the boxes [type] I tell my staff, you know, “You are an extension of me”. I say there is nothing here that I would ask you to do that I wouldn’t do myself. So you do have that mutual respect for each other. I’m a perfectionist though. I’m not necessarily easy to work for. I like it how I like it and it’s my way or the highway.
I like that people still want to buy the sorts of things you sell and set a pretty table.
If you have children or grandchildren, it’s your responsibility to create that tradition. It’s family!
So I was in your store ages ago, and I did think how easy it would be to break something if I turned around too quickly and my bag could knock a pile of plates or something. How much stuff gets broken?
It doesn’t happen very often. I find very often it’s that little nervous Nancy that’s shaking and quivering—she’s the one that will break something. If you come in, you know, assured and confident [he gets up and begins to sashay around the room likean assured customer] … you know I’m not a small person … [he sweeps his hand overthe things on the dining table] I can be large like this … no problem! They don’t break things. I’m very conscious of how it’s been set up. I like nice high piles. One lonely plate is impossible to sell. If you have thirty plates, you can sell twelve.
That’s very fascinating from a psychological point of view. I wonder what it indicates?
I don’t know! But it’s true.
Okay, so now we have to ask you about these online reviews that are less than flattering.
There have been people that have come into my store who think that I’m putting on airs but I’m going to tell you quite frankly that what you see—this is me. Honest to God, I’m not trying to impress or put on airs. I had a lady come in one day and she had a bag of glasses that I had sold to her ten years ago and every day she had taken a scrubby sponge and she scrubbed all around the rim. So she brings me a bag of twenty-four glasses and she wanted me to refund the money! I just took the glass and I dropped the glass down inside the shopping bag. I said, “This is all these glasses are worth to me!” And I hate that people come into my shop and talk on their cell phones. I’ve had to become a little more lenient but I’m very inclined to throw you out. [Roars “Getout!”] And you know it’s hurtful for me to read those things. We try to be as patient as we can.
What does Wayne think of all this?
You know what? Everything will be okay, so long as I have Wayne.