As a young, gay man in North Carolina, Bob Page liked going to flea markets. He began buying odd pieces of china, stored them in boxes in his attic, and recorded each piece on an index card. He compares that hobby to “the fun of an Easter egg hunt,” and hardly imagined its future success as Replacements, Ltd., which now employs four hundred people and is currently the largest tableware business in the world, with an annual revenue of $80 million.
No longer just limited to china, crystal and silver, the company now also sells estate jewelry and miscellaneous exotic items that range from a $3.49 for a Glassscot Cavaliers Christmas tree ornament, to a $24,999 for a Rolex Submariner. These days eighty percent of sales are online. The Replacements, Ltd. work force includes 135 employees from foreign countries. The company also has a warm spot for workers’ pets. Friendly dogs are welcome, and there are many breeds keeping their owners company in the 500,000 square feet warehouse.
As its name implies, the purpose of the business is to find the very piece that’s missing from someone’s collection. “We do sell a product, but what we really sell is a memory,” Bob Page says. “Sometimes what we locate is pretty mundane, but there’s a sentimental element. For someone replacing that missing single piece of a place setting or locating a lost collectible, it’s like going back home.”
A few years ago when Oprah needed to locate a missing bowl to give to a woman appearing on her show, she called Bob Page. He found and sent the bowl immediately. For another TV show he was also able to “overnight” a matching glass sherbet dish that had broken during a cat food commercial. Some rare pieces Replacements, Ltd. was able to locate are antiques, dating as far back as the nineteenth century.
Where does he find the 450,000 different tableware patterns and collectibles he sells? Nowadays he has suppliers, 500 strong, in all corners of the United States. One of his network of individual scouts told him, “I put myself through grad school selling flea market finds to you.” Both through buying and selling, Page says, “We’ve touched so many lives.”
The business was born in the city of Greensboro, which at that time was typical of the deep South, generally homophobic and repressive. Loans for small businesses were unavailable to him and being deep in the closet, Bob Page had no family to turn to for financial help. His home was a tobacco farm twenty-five miles from the city, where he ate “cornbread and beans for dinner” and was raised in a family where some still consider homosexuality sinful.
Through young adulthood he felt isolated and thought about suicide. Serving in the army, he secretly hoped to die in Vietnam. At the University of North Carolina, as the first in his family to go to college, he studied business administration and accounting. Years later, when he decided to quit the government auditor position he calls “a thankless job,” his mother objected. She felt he was throwing away his education. Even before becoming successful, he decided the money he’d earn was secondary to the satisfaction of doing “something that makes me happy.”
When a full-disclosure story was about to appear about him in a local newspaper, he decided to finally come out to his family. He was forty years old. His mother cried. “What did I do to make you gay?” she wanted to know. She and his father both claimed they’d known all along, but never discussed it. He says, “They continued to give me unconditional love.”
In recent years Bob Page has fought hard for marriage equality, and the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. When North Carolina overturned the ban against same-sex marriage in 2014, he married the partner he’d originally met through a personal ad. They’d earlier adopted a pair of seven-month old Vietnamese boys, now fifteen, and were married on their twenty-sixth anniversary.
Six years ago, through Bob Page’s support of a Quaker-affiliated school, they met a young, international student from Nigeria and have informally added him to their family. Although they recently divorced, Bob Page’s ex still works at Replacements. “We simply grew in different directions,” but both continue to share their commitment to their three sons.
There is a plaque on Bob Page’s desk that spells out a Gandhi quote: “Live simply that others may simply live.” He has followed that tenet to the letter. His driving force now is for social justice and charity. He has already gotten statewide recognition and an accumulation of distinguished awards for his philanthropy. Among the many recipients of his support are the NAACP, ACLU, and the local LGBTQ Center for Equality.
“When I was a boy I really wanted a madras shirt and a pair of Weejuns, things my family couldn’t afford. But, my father always had a huge garden and gave what we didn’t need to others. I suppose I learned from him. So, now what do I want? I want to help other people.” His latest endeavor is to find pre-owned clothes and distribute them to the needy without charge. He currently has a collection of thousands of items that he stashes in what he has appropriately dubbed “Bob’s Closet.”
“I have everything I need,” he says. Everything he buys is “used,” including his second-hand car. If his employees need help, he gives it. At seventy-five, “My life is an open book. I just refuse to hide. I did that for way too many years,” he says.