Lost Gems

Michael Kraus

The first time I stepped inside the tableware store Replacements, Ltd., in Greensboro, North Carolina, my heart started racing: here was the flea market of my dreams. Filling a showroom the size of a football field—no, bigger—were new and vintage plates, saucers, chargers, forks, teacups, and every other imaginable dining-room accoutrement, all of it stretching on as far as the eye could see. A maze of glass-front cases holding precious antiques led to bargain rooms where plates were piled in tall stacks. I left with five bags full of finds, including a Mikasa teapot ($6), a Wedgwood platter ($20), and a lovely Depression-glass plate (99 cents).

As it turns out, Replacements lays claim to the largest and most diverse inventory of tableware in the world—some 14 million pieces in 300,000 different patterns and designs. It's the brainchild of a North Carolina native named Bob Page, who started the company 28 years ago, when he was working as an auditor and living for his weekend trips to flea markets. Friends started asking Page to keep his eyes peeled for specific pieces from their china or silver sets that had broken or gone missing. Page enjoyed reuniting people with those cherished items, so much so that he began advertising his services and keeping track of clients' requests on index cards. In 1981 he left his job to pursue the business full-time. Today, Replacements has more than 500 employees and a well-designed website where customers can learn about influential tableware companies, browse images, buy overstock and discontinued or vintage pieces, and get help in identifying heirloom patterns.

To visit Replacements, online or in the store, is to grasp just how much these items—whether it's a hand-painted Royal Copenhagen plate or a mass-produced Fiestaware gravy boat—enrich our meals and awaken our recollections. "Not everything we have demand for is based on quality," Page says, noting that his own mother brought home pieces from the very popular Johnson Brothers Coaching Scenes line as a "free gift" from her bank in the 1960s. "It's the memories and history behind these pieces that make them so special." Go to www.replacements.com, or call 800/737-5223.