80 years of the Williamsburg Pottery

npetersen@dailypress.com

When the Williamsburg Pottery opened in 1938, America was still in the Great Depression. Gas cost 10 cents per gallon and a new house less than $4,000.

For 80 years, the Pottery has been a part of Williamsburg. It, like the city, grew from small roots into a large tourist attraction. It, like the city, is built on a long history.

In 2018, though, the Pottery is between histories.

Ownership wants to move forward with a new identity centered on specialty products and a new cosmopolitan retail space, but many locals, nostalgic for the “old” Pottery, remain skeptical.

Many longtime customers say the new prices are too high; management says they’re the same. Meanwhile, the enormous 750-space parking lot often remains nearly empty.

The Pottery turns 80 this year, but in a way, it also turns six. The Williamsburg landmark, which once attracted more than 3.5 million visitors a year and earned more than $100 million a year, according to a 1990 piece by the Washington Post and a 2012 article in the Daily Press, is caught between the past people remember and the future it wants to create.

The ‘Old’

In 1938, high school graduate Jimmy Maloney bought a half-acre of land on Route 60 and opened a pottery kiln.

There, he started making pottery in the 17th and 18th century styles he learned as an apprentice at Jamestown Colony.

Business was suspended during World War II, but afterward, Maloney’s pottery boomed. By the 1980s, the company’s website said it stretched more than 200 acres, sold over 80,000 items and brought the county more than a million dollars in tax revenue, according to a 2013 article in the Daily Press.

“The old Pottery was just a bunch of ramshackle shops, but a real attraction,” said Jim Icenhour, vice chairman of the James City County Board of Supervisors.

The Williamsburg Pottery had its own Amtrak stop until 1996. Before the days of internet shopping — people came from across the East Coast for its merchandise and one-of-a-kind handmade, salt-glaze pottery.

Maloney, who only ever held a high school diploma, pioneered a new type of retail market: The Pottery, selling factory-made goods directly from manufacturers, was an outlet mall before outlet malls existed.

He also began selling other factories’ seconds, allowing customers to purchase slightly chipped or misshapen pottery for dirt-cheap prices.

According to the Post, Maloney was the son of a shipyard worker and grandson of an Irish immigrant. He regularly wore a visor and beat-up tennis shoes. Every day, he let his employees take an afternoon break to play basketball. Forged in the Great Depression, Maloney drove the Pottery to enormous success, without ever keeping a desk.

The ‘New’

In 2005, though, Maloney died and his business began to struggle. The Pottery faced a more competitive market and suffered during the Great Recession according to a 2010 article in the Virginia Pilot.

The Pilot reported that business slowed until sales were under $15 million a year and retail space was confined to a single warehouse.

That year, Kim Maloney, the Pottery’s owner and Maloney’s widow launched a complete renovation. Involved with the business since the mid-1990s, Kim Maloney hoped the upgraded space would increase sales and attract new customers, according the Pilot.

“We were only too happy to give them approval to renovate,” Icenhour said. “(The Pottery) used to be a real eyesore.”

The Pottery announced its renovation plans in the fall of 2010 and ceased retail operations in November, 2011, according to a piece in the Richmond Times Dispatch. It reopened on April 5, 2012, on the day Maloney would have turned 100.

The $30 million renovation featured 160,000 square feet of retail space modeled after a 19th century Dutch Marketplace according to the Daily Press and the company’s website

The three separate buildings, dubbed ‘marketplaces,’ carry different categories of merchandise: gourmet kitchen, home essentials, and outdoor living.

Throughout its history, the Pottery has always sold random, eclectic items — from Christmas decorations to full-size suits of armor, according to the Post.

The current inventory is more predictable but still changes, Ronk said. The Pottery now sells wine, craft beer, specialty food, name brand merchandise and their salt glaze pottery, still handmade on site.

Ronk said the Pottery is trying to attract customers through special sales, free wine tastings and specialty events like the yearly Asian festival. To celebrate the 80th anniversary this year, they will raffle off specialty items each week and hold more sales.

But despite the renovations, business has remained slow.

When the renovation plans unveiled, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that company Vice President Peter Kao predicted sales would return to their levels in the 1980s, around $50 million a year. A year after the Pottery relaunched, Kao, told the Daily Press that sales had not met expectations.

"If you say, 'Am I satisfied?' and 'Have we met our goals?' The answer is 'no' and 'no,'" said Kao in the 2013 story.

According to the same article, the Pottery employed nearly 200 people in 2013.

Without offering any specific numbers, Ronk said that sales have improved since then, but she added that many local businesses have recently struggled with tourism.

“A lot of it has to do with the changing business dynamics. Many of our brick and mortar stores aren’t doing as well as they used to,” Icenhour said. “I’m a little surprised and a little disappointed (the Pottery’s) not doing better, but that’s the thing with businesses: some do well, and some fail.”

The future

Founded By Kim Maloney after her husband’s death in 2005, the James Maloney Foundation supports local charities and educational organizations, funded by one percent of the Pottery’s yearly revenue. Every year, it funds scholarships for two graduating seniors at each of the four local high schools, according to the company website.

Ronk said that over the years, the Pottery has donated land to the Peninsula YMCA near Norge and a York County Firehouse on Lightfoot Road.

“[The Pottery has] been, for many years, integrally involved in the community efforts, and they continue to be,” said York County Fire Chief Stephen Kopczynski.

Once known as the ‘Bizarre Bazaar,’ the Pottery excelled in a world where internet shopping and outlet malls didn’t yet exist. The Washington Post estimated the company grossed $60 million in 1987.

But now, internet shopping and outlet malls do exist. In 1990, The Post reported that the Pottery brought in more than 50,000 visitors in a single month. By Maloney’s death in 2005, its daily visitors were down to the hundreds, according to a story in the Daily Press.

“I doubt it will ever quite get back to what it was,” Icenhour said.

Maloney’s side-road shop is trying to find its way in the 21st century. The old dirt floors, labyrinthine warehouses and 10-cent bins have been replaced with new candle-scented marketplaces.

“It’s like your favorite hot dog stand also started selling hamburgers,” Ronk said. “The hamburgers aren’t bad, they’re just different.”

Many customers continue to complain of high prices, empty shelves and foreign-made goods. The Pottery continues to say those complaints are off-base.

And in between the marketplaces, next to a dry fountain awaiting repairs and under a banner celebrating the 80-year anniversary, the bronze statue of James Maloney continues to stand in the center of his Pottery.

Petersen can be reached by phone at 757-345-8812 or by email at npetersen@dailypress.com.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette
52°