I never thought much about the lives of the sales associates at my local Williams-Sonoma. When someone on the other side of the counter seemed particularly expert in helping me find the right tool for a tricky kitchen task, I assumed—without asking—that the person might have worked in a restaurant or had some professional culinary training.
Then a sales associate at Williams-Sonoma in downtown Bethesda happened to mention to me that she was trained as a lawyer.
In fact, more than 25 percent of the sales associates at the upscale kitchen and home store in Bethesda (at least four out of 15) have law degrees. The ranks of lawyers selling $24.95 lemon squeezers and $1,999.95 espresso machines swell during holidays, when management brings in seasonal workers. Then the store might have six or seven lawyers wrapping gifts in the national chain’s signature dark boxes tied with grosgrain ribbon.
General Manager Travis Montgomery, 43, says he never set out to hire lawyers. It just happened. “If I had to guess, it’s probably just some D.C. phenomenon,” he says, because highly educated people flock to the region. “I’ve heard that there are more Ph.D.s per capita in Bethesda than in Silicon Valley.”
That explanation left me wondering. Is there a link between the critical skills needed to make a legal case and those required to bake Instagram-ready tarts—or to advise a Williams-Sonoma customer on how to make one? Or maybe, I thought, the store’s lawyer-laden staff is just one more aftershock of the 2008 recession that prompted many law firms to downsize. There are now more lawyers than there are jobs in the legal field. And while many law firms have downsized, food obsession, especially in privileged neighborhoods, is on the rise. I now know more young women who are dreaming of becoming food bloggers than going to law school.
A couple of the lawyers working at Williams-Sonoma are older and on their second career; one is a more recent law school graduate. One is a former lawyer for the federal government who trained as a pastry chef.
“We all have our own stories and own journey on how we got here,” says Susan Morris, 62, of Chevy Chase.
Morris, a graduate of Georgetown Law, practiced communications law. She loved the law, she says. She loved her firm. Then she had her first child. Urgent work calls didn’t stop just because it was 7 p.m., or because she had a baby daughter and her husband was traveling on business. Eventually the work life she loved seemed infeasible. So Morris quit. “The younger attorneys said, ‘We thought you had it all. We thought you could do it all.’ But it was just too much pressure on me,” Morris recalls.
Morris had a second child, did consulting work on the side for a while. She threw herself into volunteering through her church to help disadvantaged families. When her youngest child left for college, Morris says, “people asked me, ‘What are you going to do now?’ ”
Morris is a passionate cook from a foodie family. Two brothers are chefs. Feeding family and friends is one of her favorite ways to nurture. She enjoys the accoutrements of cooking and has a particular weakness for heavy copper pots.
So she took a part-time job at Williams-Sonoma at Mazza Gallerie in Upper Northwest D.C. She thought she’d stay a few weeks, just through the holidays. That was seven years ago. When Williams-Sonoma moved to Bethesda a year and a half ago, she went along. In addition to selling kitchen goods, she teaches children’s cooking classes at the store once or twice a month. She sometimes brings in a failed cupcake as a visual aid; she helps kids figure out why it sank in the center. “I have always looked forward to coming here—every single day,” Morris says. “It is so much fun. This place brings me so much joy…As my husband says: ‘This is Susan’s hobby.’ ”
Sandy Bonner, also 62, an avid home cook and entertainer, worked for politicians on Capitol Hill after she graduated from law school. She eventually joined her husband, Jack, in their lobbying firm, Bonner & Associates. The couple recently rebranded the company as a public affairs firm called A2W—short for Advocacy to Win. Sandy still works part time for the firm, but she’s also discovering life’s next chapters. She and her husband sold the Potomac home where they’d lived for more than 30 years and raised their children. They rented in Georgetown for a year while Sandy launched a short-lived food and wine startup. They decided they like Bethesda better. They are renting an apartment on Bethesda Row while they look for a house to buy here.
Bonner walks across the street to go to work at Williams-Sonoma a few days a week. She was an accomplished cook and home entertainer when she started working at the store. She’s a better one now, she says. She’s learning from the more accomplished chefs on the store’s staff. “My children are grown,” she says. “I live to work. I don’t play cards. I don’t play golf. I like to work. I really like to learn. And I can’t learn sitting in an apartment.”
One key lesson she’s learned about cooking is to avoid tackling a three-course meal at the frenetic pace of a political advocate racing toward a key vote and working three phones at once. She slows down and relaxes. “It’s going to take eight minutes to brown an onion,” she says, shrugging. “So enjoy it. Don’t hurry. It’s what that great book Like Water for Chocolate says: The emotions of the chef are transmitted into the food. Slowing down makes the food taste better.”
Life, too, as it turns out, is better savored at a saner pace. Bonner is happy to have traded her suits and high heels for comfortable shoes, jeans and T-shirts.
But that doesn’t mean being a sales associate at Williams-Sonoma is all as chill as a $399.95 Breville Smart Scoop ice cream maker. For all the casual vibe of the elegantly homey shop, its lawyers-turned-sales associates haven’t entirely escaped the concept of billable hours. Williams-Sonoma keeps elaborate metrics on the performance of each member of its sales force. The company tracks, for instance, how many sales per hour each associate makes, says Montgomery, the general manager of the Bethesda store. Sales associates don’t work on commission. Still, Montgomery meets regularly with each sales associate to discuss their numbers.
As internet sales continue to grow, and many brick-and-mortar retailers falter, Williams-Sonoma tries to staff its store with associates who offer customers something they can’t get on Amazon: personalized expertise and instruction. “I look for people who love the product and can sell the product,” Montgomery says. “We have everything from sofas to really complex espresso machines here. So somebody who is using our products at home and has an aptitude for using them has a real advantage.”
Customers bring in reminders of how chaotic modern life can feel. Internet commerce with free next-day or two-day shipping has altered customer expectations of what can be purchased in a hurry. It’s not unusual, Montgomery says, for a customer to rush into the Bethesda Williams-Sonoma store midafternoon to buy 12 place settings of china to use during a dinner party they are hosting that night.
Sales associates collect tales of customers on last-minute missions. Someone who had just bought $120 of steamed crabs at the Bethesda Crab House stopped in on the way home because they realized they had no way to eat them; they didn’t own a mallet or claw cracker. A young man who’d invited friends over to watch a game on TV—friends due to arrive in 15 minutes—rushed in to buy a can opener for the bean dip.
It’s not unusual for sales associates to assist customers they know from other parts of their life. At first, Bonner says, she’d flinch a little when someone who knew her as a suit-wearing dynamo hanging out with senators saw her with a name tag pinned to her shirt. She laughs as she recounts how young people who grew up with her kids in Potomac see her in the store, do double takes and ask: “What are you doing here, Mrs. Bonner?”
These days she has a ready answer: “I’m having the time of my life.”
April Witt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.