Barbara Williams, who sold Shaker furniture, dies at 89

03/02/2017

Barbara Williams, a longtime Inverness resident who loved to travel, ski and play guitar in her church band, died peacefully in her home on Feb. 9. She was 89 years old.

Along with Thomas Williams, her husband of nearly 55 years, Ms. Williams owned and operated Shaker Shops West, a furniture manufacturer in Inverness. When the shop opened in 1975, it was the first Shaker craftsmanship shop on the West Coast. 

Her only child, T.G. Williams, praised her for always providing him with a heartfelt presence. “She was the closest person in my life,” he said. “I could talk to her about anything and she would quietly give me advice to make me reflect upon myself.”

Born in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 10, 1928, Ms. Williams was raised in Hewlett, N.Y. Mr. Williams, who lived in the area, said he “would admire her from afar.”

“She had her own crowd and I had mine, but I knew about her and that was it,” he said.

While attending boarding school in her teens, Ms. Williams visited extended family in Canada for a weekend. Bob Cluett, an author whose 2003 book “The Gold of Troy” explored family mythology, was only 8 years old at the time, but this third cousin left a lasting impression.

“At 13, she was a remarkably gracious woman,” he said. “The family in which I was reared was astonishingly ill-mannered and interruption was the principal [mode] of exchange; Barbara would wait until people finished sentences before replying. It was a novelty.” 

After graduating from secretarial school in New York City, Ms. Williams began a brief employment as a copy writer for a Manhattan advertisement agency. She was anxious to travel, however, and soon left to volunteer at the Grenfell Medical Mission in Canada before taking a civilian position with the United States European Command in France in the aftermath of World War II. 

Her entrepreneurial and artistic instincts also led her to establish and operate a guest house on Majorca, off the coast of Spain.

Mr. Williams was traversing Europe when he booked a room at the guest house (her family had tipped him off about her business). When the two met, he was “immediately bowled over by her beauty. But it was a job to get her to come around and get married,” he said.

During his stay, Mr. Williams suggested they take a jaunt on a small sailboat, but their journey was beset by an unexpected storm caused by desert winds that worked up waves the size of ships, he recalled. 

Mr. Williams said they expected the worse, but they rode out the storm until the next morning. When the clouds cleared, the experience had them both laughing and crying. “I had never been more grateful to be alive and to be with that lady,” he said. 

The couple moved to California and married in 1962 in San Francisco. Their first business together was in the city’s Sunset District and bore her name: Barbara’s Coin-Operated Dry-Cleaning. He would later work in real estate while she focused on raising their son. 

In 1975, the couple opened the first Shaker Shops West, originally in Ross, before relocating to Inverness. 

Mr. Williams said the couple shared family roots in New York’s Hudson Valley and was aware of a century-old business that supported the area’s rural Shaker community. They appreciated the qualities expressed in the elegant, functional simplicity of the furniture. 

“We were introduced to Inverness and the community [and] we, in turn, could introduce, share and reproduce Shaker designs in a place we yearned to be,” he said. “The result was a perfect fit. Barbara and I knew we were finally home.”

The business grew into a local staple with a worldwide reach. (Their furniture has been well received in Japan: “The Japanese love the simplicity and the beauty,” Ms. Williams told the Light in 1991.) 

The family purchased land in Seahaven and built an A-shaped cottage, where they’ve lived ever since. 

T.G. said his mother loved alpine skiing and recalled how she guided him down the slopes. The family joined the Inverness Yacht Club, where they raced their Flying Scot in Tomales Bay. At one time, Ms. Williams held a seat on the board of the Inverness Association and helped coordinate a low-cost food program in Point Reyes Station.

Tami Patterson was 10 years old when she first met Ms. Williams. “I remember thinking ‘She’s not from here,’ because she had that East Coast accent,” Ms. Patterson said. “I just loved seeing Barbara’s positive energy and she was always open and present with us children.”

The Williams and Patterson families developed a deep bond. Both were active at St. Columba’s Church and Ms. Williams would haul the Patterson children and T.G. out to McClures Beach to explore tide pools. 

At St. Columba’s, Mr. and Ms. Williams played music for the congregation. Their inclusion of guitar and other rhythms inspired what Shawn Patterson, Tami’s brother, called a “groovy service” that went outside traditional organ-based church music.

“Our mother called it an ‘alternative to the holy mass,’” he wrote in an email. “I just remember Barbara as kind, fun and willing to put up with all of us kids—she made life better for us.”

Toward the end of 2010, Missy Patterson, the Patterson family’s matriarch, fell ill and was in the hospital in Terra Linda. Tami recalled being with her mother when they heard Ms. Williams’s voice nearby. Unbeknownst to them, she had been admitted for surgery. Tami said her mother’s final hours were spent in the best of company.

“We knew Mom wouldn’t live through the day, but to have [Missy and Barbara] together, laughing and cracking jokes… was really important,” she said. “They had a powerful connection.”

T.G. said his mother lived her final years quietly and without any complaints. In the time leading up to her death, she was in the presence of her family. 

“We felt like we had the chance to tell her everything,” he said. “I was able to tell her how much I loved her.”