Williams-Sonoma's sales are surging, and retail analysts speculate that our national passion for nesting is the reason. But surprisingly, the company's founder and early customers were globe-trotters, not homebodies. Indeed, Chuck Williams got the idea for the business during a 1952 trip to Paris. There, he was dazzled by stores filled with "beautiful, heavy copper pots and pans, white-porcelain ovenware, baking dishes, and casseroles of all different shapes and sizes," he says. Such items were truly foreign to American cooks, but Williams believed he could sell them, so he opened a shop in Sonoma, Calif. He soon moved it to a spot near San Francisco's hotel-dotted Union Square, which was then a conference mecca in the way that Orlando and Las Vegas are today. Affluent conventioneers -- for whom French cooking was all the rage, thanks to Julia Child -- snapped up the store's unique merchandise. These out-of-towners often sent mail orders for cookware to the shop after their trips. In this way, Williams-Sonoma started to build a national network of customers -- the foundation for its $603-million catalog business.
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