Replacements reminds me of my house—it’s a place made for
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
The dish store that is my home away from home