Reaching over a rectangular folding table piled high with stacks of china plates and rows of etched crystal glasses, Bob Page carefully picks up a cream-colored butter dish and draws it in for closer inspection. “This is Spode Buttercup,” he says, pointing to the dainty yellow blooms impressed on the earthenware. “The manufacturer didn’t make many, and it’s in high demand — I found it at Goodwill for 99 cents, but it will retail for $100.” Another stack of plates catches his eye, and he runs a finger over the tiny raised flowers around the rim. “Hand-enameled,” he says, his voice reverential. “These plates were made by Lenox, right here in North Carolina.”
Dishes, stacks and stacks of them, fill the hundreds of 16-foot-tall shelves that fan out around Page’s table. He’s standing in the middle of Replacements, Ltd.’s headquarters in McLeansville, a table-setting wonderland about the size of eight football fields stocked with every imaginable china pattern. Like any serious collector, Page can rattle off details about nearly every compote bowl and bread plate he’s purchased. But he’s no mere hobbyist. Replacements is the world’s largest retailer of china, crystal, and silver. Shoppers from around the country come here to replace once-irreplaceable family heirlooms: nieces longing to complete their great-aunt’s tea set; grandmothers hunting for a discontinued china pattern; even tourists, delighted by Replacements’ museum of rare tableware, pick up one-of-a-kind collectibles.
The dozens of dishes that Page is examining on the table are the ones he just bought during his weekly tour of estate sales and thrift shops. Every Monday morning, Page — the boss of more than 400 employees and 500 contract suppliers — comes to work with boxes of whatever caught his fancy that weekend, ready to sell. He can’t help himself. New inventory means new possibilities: Somewhere on these shelves is the nut dish, soup spoon, or salad plate that will bring a cherished memory to life or set the table for the next generation.
Even though Page knows by heart the value of his finds, the joy of his work comes from understanding how much these everyday objects mean to people. “You might look at a plate and think, ‘Well, that’s not really special,’” he says. “But it’s special to somebody. Because it reminds them of Sunday dinner, or happy times with the family.”
• • •
Page’s dinnerware obsession started with a wooden recipe box. He was 36 years old — the first in his tobacco-farming family to graduate from college — and was working as an auditor for the State of North Carolina. The son of a sharecropper father and a mother who worked for the American Tobacco Company, Page knew auditing was a responsible career choice. “But I hated my job,” he says. “We’d audit health and social services departments, and nobody was glad to see us — it was pretty thankless.”
To escape the mundane work, Page left every Friday afternoon and drove through the night to a flea market, sometimes as far as Tennessee or Massachusetts. “I would bring this little recipe box with 3-by-5 index cards scribbled with requests from people,” he says. “I didn’t have the money to stockpile stuff, so I would try to find things I knew other people were looking for.”
Requests ranged from china to crystal patterns, but soon his sixth sense about tableware led him to rare finds and bargains: a pair of drinking glasses, for instance, purchased for $55, turned out to be worth $1,000. But the big finds weren’t the best part of the hunt. “To me, it’s thrilling to find something that you know somebody is going to be delighted to get,” he says. “I guess I’m the kind of person that likes to make other people happy.”
On these shelves is the nut dish or soup spoon that will bring a memory to life.
As Page developed a niche for china and crystal, he took out ads in magazines and set up an answering service on his phone. “I would return phone calls after work and package the boxes on my kitchen floor.” In 1981, with orders spilling from his Greensboro attic, Page left his job with the state to make a career out of his weekend treasure hunts.
Page’s parents couldn’t understand it. “My mother, who loved me unconditionally, felt like I was throwing my education away.” Soon enough, they came to see that Page’s new job was not so different from their own. Like his father, he worked hard and watched something grow. And grow. Today, Replacements brings in about $80 million in sales each year.
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Page himself isn’t one for formal sit-down meals. Even tonight, the guests who stream into his Greensboro backyard for the Triad Health Project’s “Dining for Friends” fund-raiser have come casual: pool bags in hand, hungry for barbecue, slaw, and potato salad served on paper plates. Page, sipping sweet tea, greets them in a knit short-sleeve shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes he bought at a thrift store. “Yes,” he readily admits, “I buy all my clothes secondhand. Everybody knows I’ve never paid more than $10 for a shirt.”
Triad Health Project, a local nonprofit that provides services to patients with HIV and AIDS, is one of many civic organizations that Page supports. His pet project, “Bob’s Closet,” provides clothes he purchases himself to those in the community who need help. To celebrate Replacements’ 30th and 35th anniversaries, he provided funds to build Habitat for Humanity homes, and paid employees for their time volunteering on the building sites. And just last year, North Carolina A&T State University presented Page with their annual human rights award.
As the sun begins its descent over the maples lining his backyard, Page realizes that he hasn’t filled his own plate yet. He probably won’t. “I love hosting fund-raising events at my house, but I usually don’t have time to eat,” he says. “There are too many people to talk to — and this is important.”
Replacements’ success has given him the public forum to speak out for those who don’t have a voice. Of his many causes and contributions, Page is proudest of the stand he’s taken for gay rights. He knows what it means to grow up gay, and he understands the daily anxiety and dread of keeping one’s identity a secret. “I do think that there was a time when I feared losing my job if anybody knew,” he says.
In 2016, when North Carolina passed House Bill 2, barring cities from prohibiting discrimination, Page sent an email to every Replacements employee and millions of customers worldwide. “I want to make one thing clear,” he wrote. “Replacements, Ltd., affirms the dignity and beauty of each and every person. You will always be warmly welcomed at Replacements, Ltd.”
He expected backlash from customers, and he wasn’t surprised to receive emails from those who swore they’d never do business with him again. “But that’s OK,” he says. “There are things more important than money.”
That personal belief inspires how he runs his business. Employees can take paid time off to volunteer, and they have access to an in-house wellness clinic, pharmacy, nurse station, and workout area. They’re welcome to bring their dogs to work, too. Thirty-six flags proudly hang from the warehouse’s rafters, each representing a country of origin for Replacements employees.
Elizabeth Farrell, who has worked at Replacements for two decades, says that Page’s commitment to his employees is the reason why more than half of them have been with the company longer than 15 years. Another reason for the loyalty is the job itself. Visitors to Replacements are often on a personal mission, and their enthusiasm for the place is palpable. (Customers from all walks of life and corners of the globe find their way remotely to Replacements, too: Mother Teresa once ordered a Noritake pattern called Cobina.) Farrell gives tours to shoppers from all over the country who want to visit the warehouse-like facility and its museum of rarities — like a pair of high-heeled shoes made from Wedgwood china. “Customers walk in the store, their eyes get so big, and their mouths drop open,” Farrell says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, this has been on my bucket list.’”
• • •
“Sit here; I’ll be back in a minute,” Page tells his dog, Quinn — “another one of my kids” — and closes the door to his second-floor Replacements office. It’s not that he doesn’t want her in here; it just takes a while for her to settle down, he explains. Taking a seat behind his glass-topped mahogany desk, Page opens a drawer and pulls out a well-worn file folder. “I just stick things in here randomly,” he says, shuffling through inspirational quotes jotted on scraps of paper.
He reads a few out loud: “It is better to be hated for what we are than to be loved for what we’re not.”
“To the world, you may be just one person. But to one person, you may be the world.”
He pauses for a second, his eyes glistening, and then continues: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
Like Page, Replacements’ customers are sentimental in the best way: They’re moved by the meaning of things. They know they don’t need that antique silver sugar spoon to set their table. But they want it, because the spoon transports them to a sunny afternoon on their grandmother’s patio. They want that set of dessert plates because it sparks memories of birthday celebrations when the whole family was together.
“I hope you will always remember that you do not just replace things. You replace times long past.”
Page keeps a binder of letters from customers who’ve written over the years to thank him for connecting them to their past. One begins: “I just placed an order for the last 12 pieces of my dinnerware and want to celebrate this occasion by sharing a story with you.” The writer explains that sometime in the 1920s, her grandmother bought six dinner plates in a floral Mayflower pattern. But her dream of collecting a set that she could pass on died during the Depression. After rediscovering those six plates hidden in a cupboard, the writer searched for years to complete the set.
Through marriage and divorce, a job change, and cross-country moves, the granddaughter continued her search. Along the way, she discovered Replacements, and her final order coincided with a purchase of 59 acres of farmland near her hometown. She was starting a new career and building a new home. She planned to host her whole family for her first Christmas back home in 25 years.
“There was absolute silence on the other end of the line when I said that I would have 12 place settings of Grandma’s china,” the woman wrote, describing the moment she shared the news with her mother. “There are really no words to tell you what your company has meant to me. I hope you will always remember that you do not just replace things. You replace memories, faces, and times long past but not forgotten.”
When Page was a boy, his family didn’t have a china pattern. Their family of six lived in a three-bedroom house without an indoor bathroom. “I remember we had aluminum glasses with lots of dents in them. There were four kids, and aluminum glasses don’t break.” Even though Page has set a place for millions of people the world over, no one piece of his own collection stands out to him as a family heirloom that his three sons might pass down to their children someday.
There is something, though, that Page hopes to pass down. He passes it along through the new shoes he gives away in Bob’s Closet; he bequeaths it to the guests who come for a hot meal at Higher Ground, a retreat and resource center for people affected by HIV/AIDS; he shares it with the refugees who, thanks to help from Replacements, have a chance to build a career and a life for themselves and their families. “What I really hope my sons will cherish is my desire to help other people,” Page says. “That’s what I’d like to pass on to them.”