Jim Williams of Mercer House

There are only things that interest me, work, and those trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile. The very things they’re forced to sell when the money runs out. And it always runs out. And then all they’re left with is their lovely manners.
From the Script, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Forsyth Fountain, Savannah
Forsyth Fountain, Savannah

Jim Williams is one of those characters brought to life by prose that I wish I had the opportunity to know. Williams, an antique dealer, became known to me through the movie, and later book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

In 2004, Hui and I visited Savannah and Mercer House, the former home of Williams. Mercer House is not a house museum exactly, tours of the first floor are offered, but the second floor remains private.

Antique dealers would seem to make good characters for a book. They live off of the stories left for them, not through prose, but through objects-objects that once belonged to someone else. Those with this special sense of what can be learned from an object, regardless of wealth, don’t often appreciate things being shiny and new.

One scene in the book has two visitors to Mercer House discussing whether Williams came from new money or old. Based on significant fabric wear on a chair, the visitor guessed Williams came from old money. Williams, overhearing, made the correction, explaining he was well aware that old money would leave fabric as it was.

As one who has spent the best parts of twenty years looking at antiques, searching for them and trying to uncover a geographic and sometimes even personal life cycle for them, Williams was someone I could immediately relate to.

Mercer House, Savannah
Mercer House, Savannah

The guide on the Mercer House tour told us about some Chinese porcelain that had spent most of its existence underwater. Apparently, Williams tried to use it for dining but found that the salt water seeped through to make anything placed on it taste salty. It’s not just salt, I thought, but salt from a deep shipwreck. In the book, there’s a scene during an anxiety-filled moment when Williams has the idea to do something fun–eat sandwiches from the rescued China.

You don’t have porcelain from a deep sea bed to enjoy being a bit eccentric. I have some hotel where I like to bring out on occasion, and there’s nothing quite like Champagne sipped from old wine glasses.

Beginning in the 1950s, Williams played an active role in the preservation of Savannah’s historic district. He was able to purchase Mercer House in 1969. Williams restored the home and operated his antique restoration business out of the carriage house in the rear of the mansion.

In some cases, we only know the people of the past because their homes survived. Sometimes we learn about the people of the past because of the objects they made. Occasionally we can learn about the people of the past through the objects they collected. Jim Williams is one of those people we know about today in part because of what he did to bring history to life through objects, that a murder case made for the movies.

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