Paul Secon, 91, Founded Pottery Barn

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The New York Sun

Paul Secon, who died February 24 at 91, was a journalist and songwriter who almost by accident founded Pottery Barn, which began in 1950 as an outlet store for designer crockery in a drafty storefront on Tenth Avenue near 19th Street.

Working with his brother, Morris, Secon trucked in three barns full of pottery from the rural Alfred, N.Y., plant of designer Glidden Parker. When the shop proved a hit, Secon began offering contemporary designs, often from Europe, at budget prices. Much of the stock was factory seconds, but that scarcely seemed to matter.

A couple of years later, the store received a helpful publicity bump from the New Yorker in its “On and Off the Avenue” column. Family lore has it that society matrons in furs and jewels lined up to take a whack at the merchandise.

Secon went on to produce an innovative catalog that put the spotlight on individual designers, whom he invited into the shop to lead informal seminars. It was a new thing in the world of retail — designer chic for cheap.

But despite the store’s success, through which Secon was able to open several branches and an upscale design outlet on 53rd Street, he was not much of a businessman. In 1966, he sold out to Morris Secon and moved to Denmark, where he pursued his earlier loves, music and writing. He even wrote a successful musical based on the life of Malcolm X, called “Patrick X.”

Secon was born in Philadelphia, the son of Russian immigrants. It was a musical family — Morris Secon became first horn of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra — and Paul played trumpet, piano, oboe, and flute. He held at various times jobs as a critic at the Boston Evening Transcript, as a reporter at Billboard, and as an ASCAP monitor, making sure that clubs paid royalties to composers.

He also composed music and continued to receive royalty checks until his death for such tunes as “My O’Darlin’ My O’Lovely My O’Brien,” recorded by Rosemary Clooney, and “You Never Miss the Water (Till the Well Runs Dry),” recorded by the Mills Brothers and Sons of the Pioneers.

The Glidden Parker pottery appeared during a dry period for Secon, but he prospered after his father put up the $30 monthly rent for the Tenth Avenue store. The informal presentation of stacks of dishes scattered about in orange crates was born of necessity — the shop had no racks at first. In later years, stores such as Crate & Barrel would affect the same look, as would Pottery Barn itself when it took its place in hundreds of malls nationwide.

But in New York in the 1950s, such a presentation was a new thing, not so much a marketing idea as a reflection of postwar prosperity and the vigor of some young men who didn’t mind driving a Frasier station wagon six hours upstate several times a week. Within a couple of years, Pottery Barn moved into more spacious quarters a few blocks to the north, near 24th Street. In time, Secon began specializing in Danish modern ware and then teak furniture, and he often traveled to Europe to visit factories and trade shows. He did his own importing rather than relying on stateside distributors, and he passed the savings along to his customers.

By 1963, Pottery Barn had four stores — a second in Manhattan on MacDougal Street near 8th Street, and one each in Philadelphia and Boston. But Secon was never a well-organized businessman. Morris Secon finally bought the store from Paul in 1966, and then, overwhelmed by red ink and disorganized accounting, sold it the next year.

Morris Secon sold the stores to a more experienced retailer, Hoyt Chapin, who expanded the chain to 13 stores and then sold it to the Gap, in 1984. Now Pottery Barn is owned by Williams-Sonoma and has more than 200 stores nationwide, mostly in malls.

After moving to Denmark, Paul Secon consulted with exporters and wrote. He had a son, Lucas, who went on to have a rap hit, “Lucas with the Lid Off” in 1995.

Secon eventually returned to New York City, and moved to Rochester to be near family about a decade ago. In 2003, Pottery Barn opened a new outlet at Rochester’s Eastview Mall. The Secon brothers were invited to the opening ceremonies and recalled their first store.

“Excuse me for telling you this,” Paul Secon told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. “But when people went to the bathroom upstairs, the ceiling leaked.”

Morris Secon surveyed the vast new space and whistled, “This Nearly Was Mine” from “South Pacific.”

The New York Sun

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