Stephen Gordon: a man with a dog and a boat that he rows in lakes. That’s really all it takes for us to like a guy, but Gordon has a story that obliges further explanation. The founder of Restoration Hardware practically created a retail paradigm by selling gift-like items only loosely related to fixtures and furniture; go in for a leather couch, leave with a tackle box and xylophone. Now Gordon has a new project. Inspired by his youth in the Adirondacks, Guideboat Co. makes handsome boats out of a 19th century lumber yard in Mill Valley, CA. The flagship vessel is based on an 1892 J. H. Rushton Saranac Lake Guideboat, made with American cherry, marine bronze fittings and paired with Canadian spruce oars. Since it’s Gordon, you’ll find plenty of other compelling products at Guideboat, from Danner boots to Estwing hatchets. We caught up with Gordon to talk about making stew, determination and peeing in the woods.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Here are three, not one, as I always had difficulty taking direction: how to make a great stew, how to hold one’s temper and how to keep kitchen knives sharp. I’ve got the first one wired and remain in training on the other two.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Ask my father-in-law for a loan.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. Realizing my insignificance and working on our fall assortment of American-made men’s and women’s outerwear and sweaters.
I was and am a very determined person. Determination trumps a lot of other skill sets.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. My family and smoked salmon.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Paul Newman and 80-year-olds working out at my gym.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Paul Auster’s prose collection. The piece on his father is remarkable.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. Okay, I’m gonna be fearless here and note that my lab and I most often, and together, take a leak outside every morning. He likes the bonding. I obviously do, too.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. A grilled ribeye. Blue cheese. A rye Manhattan on the rocks. All followed by pecan pie.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. It’ll be okay.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As a nice person, kind, a good pop to my daughters. Humble.
Q. Your approach to retail (i.e., selling items beyond the core products) with Restoration Hardware was unique. Where’d you get that idea?
A. It wasn’t so much an idea but boredom with anything formulaic. As I traveled I’d come across these great finds and I was jonesing to put these cool things in the store. Worrying (truly) that folks would be confused (“what the hell is this doing here”) I started writing copy for all the products, narrating, sharing my own point of view, and in the process giving voice to the items and the store. I soon discovered that the non-core items became little retail soldiers: they provided intrigue and “leaked” value onto all the other goods, creating magic all while selling well in their own right.
Q. You didn’t have any real background in business. How did you manage to grow the company — what were some of your most important skills and insights that allowed it to happen?
A. I’ve always believed that the best merchants have a decent dose of insecurity, reflected in finely honed “radar” and a good sense of what others want. I had and have that radar. I’m also a survivor, and knew I had to learn every discipline as the business grew or I’d fail. And finally, I was and am a very determined person. Determination trumps a lot of other skill sets.
Q. How is starting a business today — Guideboat, for example — different from starting one in the ’80s? What did you do differently?
A. Today, with the advent of internet sales, we’ve another significant way to reach the customer. There’s an immediacy afforded a brand. And so, with Guideboat Co., we spent as much time and as many resources building our online presence as our “brick and mortar” flagship store. Beyond that, not much has changed in starting a business. Great product presented well, authenticity, and an insistence on no-excuses excellence (“what do they expect, we’re small” is no excuse) are all paramount. Being real. Real-ness is an incredibly valuable commodity and essential. The biggest difference for me in starting a company now is my good fortune in attracting great talent to assist me, people who’ve worked with me before or who find me credible.
Q. Aside from the Adirondacks, what are some of your favorite places to row?
A. Lake Tahoe and Richardson Bay in Sausalito.
Q. What does a successful day look like for you?
A. The day has to start with having slept well the night before, waking up and stretching like I did when as an eight-year-old. Then diving into conceiving and planning something. I love the prospect of what’s next.