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Delivering Patterns on a Platter

One plate short for the holiday dinner? Join the thousands searching for missing chinaware, a pursuit that has made one man a multimillionaire.

November 26, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — For almost a decade, Patsy Clarke was four fruit dishes away from her mother.

In 1977, Clarke inherited her mother's china--an eight-piece set of Multicolored Tonquin by Royal Staffordshire of England. Her mother, who built the set piece by piece in the 1940s and 1950s, died before she could spare enough from the household budget to buy the last four fruit dishes.

"She used to carry on about it so. Those four tiny dishes," said Raleigh, N.C., resident Clarke, now 70. "When I was young I thought, 'Merciful heavens, who wants a fruit dish that badly?' "

It would turn out that she would. As the years crept by after her mother's death, Clarke began to feel the pull of those four tiny plates. And, almost in spite of herself, she decided to purchase them.

But she soon discovered that she might be too late. The major department stores hadn't stocked the discontinued pattern in years. China shops, flea markets, estate auctions and even garage sales were no help either.

She had nearly given up when she ran across a small magazine ad for a company in nearby Greensboro that advertised itself as the world's largest supplier of discontinued and active china, crystal and flatware. She called them and they had the fruit dishes.

"Oh, it's all foolishness, isn't it?" said Clarke. "But it's the only thing, I think, that's real. The feelings and the caring. Particularly, when people are gone. There's an aura about the things they've shared with you, and those dishes are one of them."

Few understand the unusual power of missing fruit dishes better than Bob Page, the founder and president of the company Clarke contacted, Replacements Ltd. Page's company sells about 40,000 china pieces a week to customers who include Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Lenox Tuxedo), Barbara Walters (Minton Golden Crocus) and Betty Ford (Lenox Westbury). In his 18 years of restocking America's china cabinets, Page has outgrown three warehouses and now needs a building four football fields long to accommodate an inventory of 3.3 million pieces from about 50,000 patterns.

Page is not alone in trying to fill vacancies in the nation's china collections. Twenty other companies compete for the business, along with antique stores, flea markets and auction houses. Ebay.com, an Internet auction site, had more than 20,000 pieces of porcelain on the block on a single day last week.

"We had one customer call us every week for two years for a piece of Lenox Wetherly," said Mike Hollingsworth of China Traders, a Simi Valley-based replacement service with an inventory of about 30,000 pieces. "Needless to say, we got to know her quite well, and she was very happy when the piece came in."

Reaching Out to the Past

It's more than mere appreciation for a beautiful table or an obsessive need to complete a china collection that drives customers. When customers buy a piece of china, they are reaching out to the past.

"It's all extremely sentimental," said Page, a soft-spoken North Carolina native. "They could be searching for a pattern from their marriage that began 30 years ago or one that their grandmother used for Sunday dinners. They have to find it, whatever it is."

Indeed, for many in the middle class, "good china" is steeped in the memories of family gatherings for such special occasions as Thanksgiving and the December holidays. The gleaming settings, which bestow a refined elegance to a dining table, have come to symbolize part of the national ritual of coming together.

As such, chinaware is often viewed as a fragile link between the generations. In the same way a quality watch or a fine necklace may be handed down to a son or daughter, china sets too are meant to be passed down, but not so much to an individual as to an entire family. And if that line is broken, it's seen somehow as a failure to family--past, present and future.

Page appreciates his customers' sentimentality for china, but he does not wholly share in it. Page's parents were tobacco workers and couldn't afford indoor plumbing, much less fine dinnerware. Even today, Page, a 53-year-old multimillionaire, doesn't own a set of china for his home.

"I'm still too practical, I guess," he said.

But Page can become emotional when talking about the gratitude customers have shown him over the years. He keeps an inch-thick file of thank-you letters in his desk. His favorite is from a woman who inherited six dinner plates from her grandmother.

In the 1980s, the woman left Wisconsin for Wall Street and took her grandmother's plates with her, tucking them away in a cabinet somewhere. She went on to great success financially but still felt that "something was missing from her life."

One day she accidentally came across the plates, which triggered a sudden quest "to look for [her] own roots and place in this crazy world." After a wide search, she finally found her grandmother's 60-year-old pattern, Mayflower by Metlox, at Replacements.

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