On a Friday morning in late November, Tim Goldsmith, Cincinnati’s foremost purveyor of fine china, is explaining to a woman who looks to be in her late twenties why a certain bowl might be a wise choice for her bridal registry. “You could do soup with it,” he says, “or a risotto with wild mushrooms or a poached apple with crème fraîche . . . but probably not spaghetti and meatballs.” Then, noting the gold etching around the bowl’s rim, and holding up another that is plain, he shows how each looks with a plate she has already chosen, and observes: “With the gold, it’s a better match. I don’t know why the gold makes such a difference, but it does.”
It’s a good bet that Goldsmith knows exactly why the gold makes such a difference. His business, ostensibly the sale of exquisite, high-end household accessories, is really the transfer of taste: his to his customers. Everything in his shop reflects his sharply honed eye—the place settings, the flat silver, the crystal, candlesticks, wine carafes, serving dishes, salad bowls, casseroles in rattan baskets, lacquered trays, ice buckets, vases, Herend figurines. They say: You, too, can live like this if only you can summon the will—the courage—to insist on not settling for less. “For people to acquire these things,” he suggests, “there are two requirements. One, you can afford it. And two, you come to a point in your life where you care about it.” In Goldsmith’s view, there is scant difference between buying a 7 series BMW and a $20,000 set of china. “Many people treat themselves to the car. Yet many of those same persons would see the place settings as utter extravagance. They cannot get comfortable with investing their emotions in what they put on the dinner table. It’s not something they care about.”
The bride Goldsmith is dealing with this morning cares. She has browsed the store’s website, and she has a good sense of what design patterns might work for her. Early on she says she likes blue. Goldsmith responds, “Why don’t I orient you to the store and see where your eye lands?” His voice, one of his defining characteristics, is soft, steady, and reassuring. With every syllable articulated, his delivery is perfectly calibrated to move a listener to a conclusion she didn’t know she was ready to reach.
Now, he sets before her a couple of blue and white plates. “They have very different feels,” he says. “In this one, they’ve left the brush strokes visible; it’s slightly more contemporary. We’ve got other blues, but I want to show you a blue that I believe will work for you.” He pulls out another plate, then immediately undercuts its appeal by saying it would be better as a charger (a large plate cradling the actual dinner plate in a formal setting). “Now that I’ve downplayed it,” he says, “you’ll be embarrassed to say it’s your first choice.” And finally: “Here’s the darker version. They are popular, but it isn’t something I’d encourage.”
In a Crate & Barrel world, Goldsmith Cardel, which recently relocated to Hyde Park Square, is an anomaly. It sells only beautiful things, and personalizes the process to an extent nearly extinct in contemporary retail culture. “I’ll give you a little sales pitch,” Goldsmith says to a customer, “but you need to look. You need to mix and match.” He giftwraps, he delivers (personally), and he dresses as thoughtfully as he edits his inventory. Typical: a dark cashmere blazer over a blue striped shirt (with cufflinks), a dark paisley tie, charcoal flannel pants with cuffs just touching buttery black leather shoes. Goldsmith, who is tall and dinner-plate thin, has large eyes in a face of mostly small features, with pale skin and close-cropped hair. He explains his sartorial choices: “I don’t want to intimidate a younger person, but still, there’s something nice about separating yourself from your customer.”
Full disclosure: Goldsmith, who is 64 and about seven years younger than I, is my step-cousin. For much of our lives, we saw nothing of one another. I did not know, for example, that he had obtained both undergraduate and graduate training at a combination of Boston University, Parsons School of Design, and DAAP at the University of Cincinnati, from which he was graduated in 1976.
Since returning to Cincinnati myself, I have caught up with him, and in doing so, come to understand that the way Tim presents is not only unique, it is a civic asset. Example: He strides across the store and retrieves a smallish white dish with scalloped edges and pale yellow trim; its sides are a subtle basket weave and across its surface are finely etched butterflies and leaves, all in yellow. “It’s just a dumb little dish,” he says, “and yet, it’s exuberant, lively, beautifully shaped. Can’t you see it for serving candy or nuts? I get them from Europe—I don’t sell a lot—but these are life’s little treats, and they can go by the wayside very quickly.” Listening to him, I am seduced. Suddenly, I want this dish! It would have no place in our home, my wife would think I’d lost my mind, but still. . . I see its merit. I want it!
Many customers are no different. Polly Culp, a Hyde Park resident who has shopped at Goldsmith’s since her children and their friends started getting married, has her own take. “Have you ever read The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James?” she asks. “Tim reminds me of Owen Gereth, the lead character, whose mother’s appreciation of the fine things she has collected is so vividly drawn. What’s so wonderful about Tim is he knows the artists who create the things he sells. His imagination is such that then, in talking with you, he conjures the lovely table settings or beautiful things as they might look in your house. It is such a gift.”
Betsy Everingham, another of his longtime customers, puts it only slightly differently: “He is such a pleasure to talk to. He has such a passion, and he is so knowledgeable about his merchandise. He has great taste, and he carries unique things. Plus, they’re always wrapped beautifully. You’re excited when you get a box from Goldsmith Cardel. You know it will be something good.”
From his earliest days, Goldsmith was drawn to beautiful things. At age 16, he bought a pair of saltcellars from Sam Aronoff’s antique store in Hyde Park, and for many years they were among his most prized possessions. (Although less prized now, they remain with him.) His first meaningful job was at Bloomingdale’s, in New York, in the late 1970s, designing jewelry, then working as a sales clerk, and finally a floor manager in china, crystal, and silver. While he enjoyed it, the work took a toll. “Everyone was furious,” he recalls. “They came to me because they had a gripe.” Either an order had been delivered late—as much as a year late—or the stem on a crystal wine glass had snapped, or it was something else. “It was a small percent of the clientele, but it didn’t feel small when you got the feedback. I learned what not to do.”
After 10 years in the Big Apple, Goldsmith found himself wanting to return to Cincinnati, and he thought that fine china and silver might be his ticket. Seeking advice from peers in the trade, notably Harry Cardel, who owned a Madison Avenue store similar to the one he envisioned, he gradually met others—representatives of Wedgwood, Herend, Limoges, and Baccarat—who could help put him on the map. Deciding to give Harry Cardel honorary billing, he launched Goldsmith Cardel in 1987, in Hyde Park, fortuitously in the same space wherein he had once purchased those saltcellars. “I started with mostly formal things, fine china and crystal, but gradually branched out to everyday china also,” Goldsmith says. “I wanted to do what department stores weren’t doing, but then found I had to carry some of what the big boxes have or risk my clients going to Macy’s.” Which prompts a rueful confession: “It’s always a little blow to your ego when someone registers at Macy’s, but not here.”
Today, bridal business accounts for more than half of the store’s total volume. Accordingly, place setting registries are prominently featured, and if you run across a name you may know from living here, or a friend, it can be fun to see what the young and privileged choose as they enter this new phase of their lives. Not surprisingly, Goldsmith has perspective on this. “There’s a sliver of the population that thinks this is the time to do something you don’t ordinarily do. This is the moment to go for it—and they get excited,” he says. “I can’t swear to you that they use it, but let’s say . . . when you move, it’s a useful way to let people know who you are. It’s one of the nicest ways to use possessions. And for those who are oblivious, it doesn’t matter. People use clothing in the same way. For persons who are curious, [the possessions one owns] tells them something.”
Still, the process of acquisition is not easy for most. Goldsmith has known grooms who “panic and say, ‘Please don’t deliver another thing; we have more china and crystal than we’ll ever use in our lives.’ ” He has had brides ask him to deliver certain gifts to their mothers’ houses, and when he does, the mother says, “Oh, she doesn’t want those.” Contrarily, he has seen a mother watch her daughter return something, prompting the mother to say, “Oh, she should keep that.” When he heard another mother tell her daughter to return some soup bowls on the presumption that “you’ll never serve soup,” he was indignant (although he kept it to himself). “How do you know when you’re 28 what you’ll do when you’re 58?” he asks. Some women get bogged down in the ardors of selection and give up. Some fiancés grow argumentative and refuse to participate.
Nor is the process easy for the seemingly unflappable shopkeeper, who wants only to set his customers on the right course. Goldsmith is that rare individual who can walk into a house he has never seen and know instantly that: a) the furniture is out of scale; b) it displays 1880s decor when the architecture calls for 1780s; c) whatever is featured in the center of the dining room table “is clever, but not clever enough to be in the center of the table.” People who have such highly refined responses to their environments are ever vulnerable to disappointment. Frustrated brides and mothers of brides, in Goldsmith’s case, just go with the territory.
In his off-hours, Goldsmith relaxes with a combination of travel, reading—mostly history—and exercising, much of it in league with his charming and accomplished wife, physician Mindy Hastie. Together, in recent years, they have run marathons and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro; they practice both yoga and Pilates intermittently.
What drives Goldsmith, however, is his work. His passion, manifested in a connoisseur’s expertise, fuels his days. On the morning I spent with Tim and the bridal couple, he was compelled, at one point, to explain the difference between two dinner plates of slightly different sizes. “The 10-and-a-half inch plate,” he said, “implies that you’ll have a salad plate and a mug, et cetera. The 11-inch plate, maybe, gives you a little more leeway to skitter by. If you have blanched asparagus on top of Bibb lettuce, you’ll really need the bigger plate. But I’ll be on your side, whichever you choose.”
As he talked, it became clear that so much more than closing a sale was at stake. This was about preserving a way of life. “It’s a fragile little bit of our world that could be obliterated in the blink of an eye,” he said afterward. “It wouldn’t be hard for an entire population never to use these things. With great traumas, like war, or an earthquake, or a financial crisis, something always dies off. The market for fine things contracts.”
Tim Goldsmith has made it his career to secure that market’s ongoing success.