My most recent trip to Replacements, Ltd. was last December 31. I didn’t intend to go on New Year’s Eve, but I don’t like New Year’s Eve—the mandated reflection on your life, the unreasonable expectations for fun—so it’s possible that on this most unpleasant of days, I instinctually made my way to a place I love. I called beforehand, just to make sure they were open, and then I set off for Exit 132 on I-40 East.
Replacements sells china, crystal, silver, and dishes, though “sells” hardly encompasses the scope of this fortress of dishes 40 minutes from my home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The store’s total inventory is 11 million pieces.
I have been collecting dishes for many years. The pantry off my kitchen is filled with dishes. The cupboards in the kitchen are filled with dishes. The sideboard and china cabinet in the dining room are filled with dishes. My own inventory consists of probably about 60 dinner plates, 80 side plates, and maybe 40 bowls (not counting larger serving bowls). Then there are the very little plates—maybe 25 of those. And another 20 or so very little bowls. And vases. I would say 35 of those. Plus about 45 mugs and 25 teacups, some with saucers. I won’t go into candlesticks. Or platters.
I live in a 1920s red-shingled house on a quiet street. I bought the house five years ago, not because I wanted to buy a house (I didn’t), but because I happened to see it one day. It was cute and cheap, and I could see myself in it. But more than that, I could see my things in it. And over the years, my house has become a house of things, a repository of my collections.
I don’t collect plates, bowls, platters, mugs, teacups, and glassware because they are valuable. Mine aren’t. They are usually a buck or a couple of bucks each. And I don’t collect them because they are all useful—or even used. I live by myself, and although I have friends over, I don’t throw large dinner parties. Even if I did, it would be impossible to use every dish, as it is impossible for a book collector to read all of her books. And this is a good thing.
I collect dishes because they figure so much into our daily lives that they’re almost invisible. Yet many people remember the dinnerware they grew up with. Or their grandmother’s china. Or the dishes at a favorite restaurant. I love how dishes can hold memories and even invoke former versions of ourselves. Almost all of my dishes are second-hand, so they hold both my own memories and the memories of strangers. Sometimes I stand over the sink, washing one of my dinner plates and thinking of all the times I have used it and all the people who have used it before me.
Many of my dishes are from Replacements, and most are vintage. On this last trip, I bought a blue oval plate emblazoned with TAD’S STEAKS. When I got home, I called the Tad’s Steaks in San Francisco and in New York City, but the plate isn’t from either restaurant. I also bought a stack of mismatched side plates for a dollar each. One is marked “LGH” on the brown outline of a leaf. The unknown histories of these objects add to their charm.
Of course, Replacements could solve the mystery of these plates. This is one of the many things the store does: identify china and dinnerware patterns. Its 500 most popular china patterns (of 300,000) are on display in the store, alphabetically by manufacturer, as are 150 crystal glassware patterns (of more than 80,000) and 150 sterling, silverplate, and stainless spoons (from more than 60,000 flatware patterns). If you need an object to complete a set, Replacements will have it or can find it. If you don’t know what your pattern is, you can provide Replacements with a piece—the dinner plate for china, a stemmed piece for crystal, the fork for flatware—and the store will research it for you. Replacements repairs crystal and china and restores silver, even forks you have dropped down the garbage disposal. Replacements can also make objects that do not yet exist. If you would like a bacon fork or a mustard spoon that is not available from the manufacturer of your flatware, the store’s water jet machine will do the trick.
Replacements made $80 million in revenue last year. It has 400 employees and millions of customers worldwide, more than 80 percent of them online. It buys from manufacturers and individuals, as well as nearly 500 dedicated suppliers. Replacements’ facilities are the size of eight football fields and contain a museum and a discounted room that has the feel of a rummage sale. The store is connected to the warehouse by glass doors, and just beyond these doors are more stacks of dishes.
I recognize Replacements because it reminds me of my house. Like me, Replacements CEO Bob Page is a collector. He used to collect dishes at yard sales for friends, and he still collects cabinets for the store and the warehouse; one particularly large and beautiful one is marked with burns where people used to rest their cigarettes.
The warehouse shelves stretch far overhead, each object in its place, a small part of a complex system. The newest area has 30 rows, 16 feet high, with two large ladders per row, and 900 of the most popular patterns were moved to this section for shipping efficiency. There is an area for packing. There is an area for overflow. There is an area for inspection, where you can tap a pen on the side of a china teacup to tell if it has a chip or a crack. And there is an area devoted to piles of banana boxes because they are an ideal size for packing dishes: not too big and not too small.
There is a section for Fiestaware and another for Spode Christmas china. (Replacements has over 100,000 customers for this pattern.) There is a section for silver that is only polished when it is purchased. The Replacements warehouse is a kind of collector’s paradise because it feels like infinity, and the collector is never finished. We may complete one collection, but there’s always another potential collection, always more things to make our own.
We are driven by the sense that something is lacking, and that we can make up for this lack. The things I have brought home from Replacements are not replacements. But the idea of a replacement is tantalizing. A replacement takes the place of something that is missing or lost, and when it does, it takes on the memories of its fellow dishes or glasses and lives among them, in our homes. Replacements promises, among other things, to replace what is lost, to create wholes. I keep visiting in search of not just beautiful things, but a beautiful idea: the impossible promise of wholeness in a world of missing things.
Susan Harlan’s essays have appeared in The Guardian US, The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, Roads & Kingdoms, Literary Hub, The Common, Racked, The Brooklyn Quarterly, The Bitter Southerner, and Public Books, and her book Luggage was published by Bloomsbury last March. Her humor book Decorating a Room of One’s Own: Conversations on Interior Design with Miss Havisham, Jane Eyre, Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth Bennet, Ishmael, and Other Literary Notables was published by Abrams last October. She teaches English literature at Wake Forest University.