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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pierre de Beaumont, at 95; founder of Brookstone Co.

Pierre de Beaumont started Brookstone Company from his farmhouse parlor in the Berkshires in 1965. A former engineer for Packard Motor Car, he put a classified ad peddling special tools in Popular Mechanics magazine and filled orders the same day they landed in his mailbox.

Launching their business with an initial investment of $500, Mr. de Beaumont and his wife, Mary Deland (Robbins), eventually saw the venture mushroom into 300 retail outlets, where mall shoppers still plunk down in massage chairs and marvel at gizmos and gadgets for better living.

Named after their farm in the village of Worthington, Brookstone was sold in 1980 to the Quaker Oats Co. The de Beaumonts retired on their stock and put part of their fortune into foundations focused on education and communication needs in public health.

Mr. de Beaumont’s family recently announced that he died on Dec. 4 at his home in Manchester-by-the-Sea following a long illness. He was 95.

“He was an ingenious, experimental fellow, and he enjoyed working with his hands. He was a lot of fun to be with, and we all miss him,’’ said his brother-in-law Joseph C. Robbins of Cambridge.

Mr. de Beaumont had no experience in mail order when he launched Brookstone out of his frustration after combing hardware stores for the right tools for tinkering with ship models and other projects.

“Each time I went in, I could feel defeat staring me in the face,’’ he wrote in a 1976 essay titled “Ramblings on Brookstone History.’’ “The clerk would invariably look slightly bored and tell me that he had never heard of such a thing and turn to the next customer.’’

Born in New York City, Mr. de Beaumont was the son of the Countess de Beaumont, a Paris beauty queen who appeared in New York vaudeville in the 1920s under the stage name Gypsy Norman. His father was a French nobleman who died in World War I.

Mr. de Beaumont graduated from Harvard with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1938 and went to work for Packard, where he won patents for several designs. He also worked for General Motors.

When World War II hit, he served as an officer in the US Naval Reserve. He later worked for Apex Electrical Manufacturing Co. of Cleveland, and Bostitch Inc., of Westerly, R.I. He founded an Ohio regional chapter of the Antique Automobile Club of America and also was active in the Sports Car Club of America.

Mr. de Beaumont and his wife taught themselves the mail-order business and eventually expanded Brookstone to offer gifts and gourmet foods.

They took correspondence courses in accounting, and Mr. de Beaumont took the early catalog photographs himself. They sold their catalogs for 20 cents to “keep the children and lonely hearts from using up our small supply,’’ he wrote.

They drove their shipments to the post office daily in a 1961 Jeep station wagon. When they watched Walter Cronkite deliver the nightly news, Mr. de Beaumont would exercise the grip on a new stock of Brookstone pliers while his wife put labels on their catalogs. They sometimes called on family members to test grilled-cheese irons and other potential products.

“When I got to the point that I needed an electric opener to open all the envelopes that came, I knew I was on to something,’’ Mr. de Beaumont said, according to Robert M. Cabral Jr., who got his start in the mail-order gift business when the de Beaumonts included his scrimshaw jewelry in their 1978 gift catalog.

“He was a big, imposing guy. The thing I remember most about him was this cackling giggle and a twinkle in his eye. He just liked the fact that I was showing entrepreneurial spirit,’’ said Cabral, who later founded the mail-order brokerage Americraft.

In 1969, the de Beaumonts moved Brookstone out of their barn and into a warehouse in Peterborough, N.H. In 1979, the company’s sales topped $22 million.

Carol Massoni of Beverly, Mr. de Beaumont’s granddaughter, recalled learning his business wisdom. “I spent so many nights at their dinner table eating, conversing, and having a sip of wine. It seemed better than any MBA,’’ she said. “Pete would always tell us, ‘Enjoy what you’re doing, and do it well.’ ’’

The de Beaumonts were married 40 years. Mary Deland died in 2001. They both left their bodies to the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Besides Massoni, Mr. de Beaumont leaves his stepdaughters Joan Kopperl of West Stockbridge and Kathleen McAllister of Arlington, Vt.; his stepson, Edward Kelley of North Fayston, Vt.; and seven stepgrandchildren.

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