Interview: William Berg, Importer Of Vintage French Antiques
Stephen Austin Welch
Amid colorful seltzer bottles and vintage champagne buckets, across an alley from a warehouse filled with club chairs from France and jute baskets from Bangladesh, William Berg hunkers over his computer. His 2018 goals include updating his William’s Antiks website and improving his marketing outreach.
William’s Antiks is one of two import businesses owned by William and his wife, Katie Zilavy. He focuses primarily on the club chairs and unique antiques from France that comprise William’s Antiks, while Katie devotes most of her time to the handmade items from Bangladesh sold through The Dharma Door business.
Each fall, William heads to France to buy club chairs along with smaller antiques. He has fine-tuned the trip over his 20 years in the business, spending three weeks visiting town-wide garage sales and dealer fairs. He sells his finds on his web site, at select retailers along the West Coast, and once a month at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire. “The diversity of ways that we sell is how we survive,” he says.
He visits Bangladesh less frequently but plans a trip later this year to work on supply issues and new designs. “It’s also to show them that we appreciate their work.”
The path that brought William to the import business included a serving as a cook in the Navy, working as executive chef and general manager of the Union Hotel restaurant downtown, and moving to France with his then-wife, a French native. There, he drove a truck for a store selling antiques and other second-hand items. The store owner worked with a man from Los Angeles who imported club chairs, and William picked up the chairs and helped load the containers bound for the United States.
“So I learned French, I learned the French mentality, I learned how to load a truck and how to pack a container,” he recalls. “I’m quite fluent—I get a lot of compliments on my French. It’s my only superpower (chuckling). It helps when you can tease the dealers and work on pricing.”
William, 53, moved to Benicia in 1992. He and Katie live with their three school-age sons in the artist area in the arsenal.
How did you get started in the import business? When we were living in France, we started to buy smalls—that’s what we call them in the antique world—small items like tea towels, enamelware, and the (Los Angeles club chair buyer) would let us ship a few boxes of smalls in his container.
We did very well with the smalls; that was the impetus to do our own container. We’d fill it up and come back to Benicia in the summer. We’d stay with Marty Duvall. We literally had antiques sitting in the driveway with blankets over them.
We made a good profit. We moved back to Benicia and divorced in 2000. … I was on my own for a year and a half, then I met Miss Katie.
When did you move into the club chair market? I would never do club chairs at the beginning so I wouldn’t compete (with the Los Angeles chair buyer who helped William get into the import business.) He died of cancer about a year later, and I saw an opening. I brought back five pairs of chairs and sold them within three months. …
We’ve sold over 700 pairs of chairs in 17 years, shipped them across the country. We currently have 62 pairs in stock (as of mid-December). The chairs are from the 1930s through the 1950s, with the bulk from the 1940s. …
We sell about 40 pairs a year now. At the height, before the recession in 2008, we sold about 70 pairs a year. The market has changed since then. Chairs are harder to find, there’s more competition for them.
Where do you find club chairs in France? About 11 years ago, I started working with this amazing couple. My business was taking off but I was still looking for the right upholsterer. They do really amazing work of the highest quality.
When I go over, they are like family. They put me up, they feed me, they do my laundry. When I land, they have 20 to 25 pairs of chairs for me to look over. My goal is to have the best chairs in the best possible condition.
Where do you shop in France? I shop everywhere—Champagne, Normandy, Chartres, Le Mans, Paris, Bordeaux. I cover 4,000 miles in three weeks. I go to flea markets, town-side garage sales called vide-grenier. I’ll go to six in one day and drive half an hour between each one.
I also go to a dealer-to-dealer sale. It’s got about a thousand booths and it’s open just 8 to 12:30. It’s insane, very stressful. You’ll see two to three pairs of chairs that are sold that you’d love to have.
What do you look for when selecting chairs? The lines on the chairs are important, the quality of construction, the suppleness of the leather—and no infestations.
How did The Dharma Door get started? We needed another source of income, and we needed to find something we believed in. …
We’d met a couple, Shannon and Mick, when we were on a bus in Vietnam in 2003. We became friends and knew they were doing good things with their business, The Dharma Door. They sell in Australia and New Zealand. …
We started The Dharma Door USA as a separate entity in 2014. They do 95 percent of the design. All the items come from Bangladesh. We work with non-profit NGOs (non-government organizations) that make fair-trade items. All are made from jute, hemp and cotton, all sustainably sourced and dyed with natural dyes.
We directly or indirectly support 10,000 kids and 2,500 women in the poorest country in the world. There are 163 million people living in an area the size of Illinois, the average wage is 80 cents a day. Our women are making $4 a day—five times the average, to put it into perspective.
What’s your role with The Dharma Door? Katie does most of the work. She does marketing, small orders and packing, and she manages the inventory.
My responsibility is sales and warehouse management. I go to a trade show once a year in New York.
Stephen Austin Welch
William Berg with son Quinn
What do you do to find balance in your life? I try to give each of my kids a little individual time each night, even if it’s just 20 minutes of reading or playing a game. I haven’t been a chef for 20 years, but I still find I have better energy in the afternoon and evening.
We’re self-employed so in a good year we take five weeks of vacation.
We also take separate vacations. I go visit my parents, go to Burning Man. She goes to Alaska where she grew up, to Mexico with girlfriends.
About six times a year, she’ll take off for a night, go out with a girlfriend and spend the night. I invite myself to the homes of people I enjoy. I’ll spend the night and come back in the morning. So we connect with others and that gives us what we need.
What do you do when you have time off? My hobby is restoring British cars. I had a ’54 Austin Healey that I restored from the ground up. It took 10 years. I sold it when we started Dharma Door.
I still have a ’61, outside under a tarp. I’ve been too busy to work on it.