No way was the wallet coming out. Not today.
This was all business: a formal interview with Ted Watson, a look around his First Avenue store, and then a quick exit with empty hands and a full billfold.
But then I walked into Watson Kennedy and was a goner, hit with the scent of a Votivo holiday candle like a long draw from a hookah.
There were thick candy canes sprouting from 12 Days of Christmas tea cups. Earrings made of French coins. A huge table covered in all things green: soap, cake plates and books about art.
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And behind the counter, there was Watson, who has made a name and career out of making life just a little nicer with the simplest things: flowers in a vase, books artfully stacked, a recipe for roast chicken — and the perfect gift, a brown paper package tied up with string. Seriously.
The Christmas season is Watson’s season, when shoppers come in with long lists of people to buy for and a dearth of ideas — only to leave with a wrapped stack.
It is a merchant’s miracle he has been performing at this store and his original location, tucked into the courtyard under the Inn at the Market at Pike Place.
“A good gift is as pleasing to the giver as the receiver,” Watson, 50, told me as we walked around his store. “To me, a really good gift is something that is going to speak to a person. It speaks to who and what they are. It pleases them, and ultimately, I want them to use it. A paperweight they put on their bedside. A beautiful jam they are going to put on toast or a candle they are going to burn.
“Really good gifts,” he added, “are meant to be used.”
To that end, Watson doesn’t so much carry things as curate them.
“There is not one thing in either store that I have not personally chosen,” he said. “The stores have always been an extension of me,” he said. “So I think that creates a cohesiveness. It’s meant to be inclusive. It’s meant to be a refuge.”
The stores are named — with a twist — for his father, Kennedy Watson, who died more than 20 years ago, but lives on in his son’s aesthetic.
“He had a certain way of doing things, and was a hugely positive guy with an amazing outlook on life,” Watson said. “And I think we all need to be that way.”
Just as the holiday shopping season picks up, Watson is completing work on his first book, “Style & Simplicity,” to be published in May. The book covers Watson’s tastes, from A (art and Adirondack chairs) to Z (zinnias), with recipes and decorating tips. He both wrote the copy and took the photographs.
In her foreword, decorating doyenne Barbara Barry wrote: “This is not simply a gift shop, but a shop that is a gift.”
So how does he do it?
“It’s super innate,” Watson said. “No training whatsoever,” he said, except for some art history and calligraphy classes in college.
His sensibility is centered on the five senses, which explains the candles. The tins of French moutard and gourmet chocolates. The soothing dinner-party CDs. The French linens and imported hand creams. All of it painstakingly displayed by type, color, country of origin, or theme.
A Chicago native, Watson came to Seattle in 1986 to work as a tennis pro at The Seattle Tennis Club, then became president of the Pacific Northwest Professional Tennis Association. He has been with his husband, communications consultant Ted Sive (“I know: Ted and Ted,” Watson said) for 26 years.
Watson already had a reputation for his gift giving when, at 25, he was asked to join the creative team that put on the wedding of Bill and Melinda French Gates in Hawaii.
“I had studied calligraphy, so I did the place settings and the envelopes for the invitations and all of the gift buying for the guests of the Gateses,” he said. “Each meal had gifts that were thematic.”
Almost 20 years later, Watson remains tight-lipped about what they were.
“That’s the whole idea,” he said. “It was meant to be a very private wedding.”
But his work on the Gates wedding spurred him to open his own showroom, The Watson Kennedy Collection, in 1994. He sold to places like Nordstrom, Barney’s and Nieman Marcus before opening his Pike Place store in 1998. (The one at First Avenue and Spring Street opened in 2001.)
Over the years, and with mentions in national magazines, the store has developed a following, including notables like The Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, to whom Watson sends packages of her favorite French tea (Mariage Freres’ Marco Polo).
Nora Ephron was a client. Josh Groban comes in, as does his mother. Ty Burrell from “Modern Family” comes through when he’s in town.
Follow Watson around for a few minutes, and you see how the magic happens. He is constantly adjusting, moving, straightening.
In his office, a Hermes box is hung on the wall, and a bulletin board is covered with notes and photographs, including one of Watson with the designer Albert Hadley, who decorated the breakfast room of the Kennedy White House as a partner of Parish-Hadley.
There is also a photograph of Watson with Martha Stewart from years ago, before her magazine, television show and prison term.
And there is a photo of Watson with Sive from 17 years ago, when they were the first openly gay couple to appear in Better Homes and Gardens.
“Look how far we’ve come,” Watson said.
Walking through the store, straightening and scanning, Watson suddenly stops to pick up a bamboo pick off the floor.
“From my birthday party the other night,” he said.
So what gifts did friends give the man who knows gifts?
Vintage “T”s, which he collects and hangs on the walls of his homes — one at the Gainsborough on Seattle’s First Hill and the other on Vashon Island. High-end Champagne and top-shelf tequila.
When the night was over, each guest was given a gift bag and sent on his or her way. Inside, a Champagne cork ornament, a slip of paper with a quote about friendship, two cookies (one “5” and one “0”), a single aspirin and a bottle of Perrier with which to wash it down.
This kind of attention is everywhere in the store
“For each person, it’s different,” he explained. “It’s meant to be a journey. Some people want to be by themselves, and other people want help. We try to make it what the person wants it to be.”
And it seems no one leaves Watson Kennedy empty-handed. Almost.
“Thank you!” a young woman calls over her shoulder as she leaves the store after 20 minutes of browsing.
“She didn’t buy anything, but she’ll come back,” Watson said. “She enjoyed the experience.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.