Janice Perkins’s line of work requires her to be one part Martha Stewart, two parts Miss Marple.
As the founder of Missing Pieces, Perkins has spent almost half her life searching high and low, not to mention hither and yon, for discontinued dinnerware, flatware and stemware for people whose sets, many of which have been handed down from one generation to another, are short a saucer, fork or champagne flute. Know how COVID-19 created a sudden demand for hand sanitizer? Same thing with teapots, apparently.
"I’ve sold 92 teapots since last April, up significantly from the previous year," Perkins says, scrolling through an Excel spreadsheet that also indicates how many vintage soup bowls (332), coffee mugs (502) and dinner plates (1,583) she’s tracked down for customers from every corner of the globe in the last 12 months. "People have been home a lot more because of COVID and many are using that time to go through their stuff and replace valuables that have gone astray through the years. That’s where I come in."
Perkins, 58, was in Grade 10 when she landed a part-time job at a Birks outlet at Polo Park. She was assigned to the china section with strict instructions to memorize the various makes in order to better assist shoppers trying to decide between one pattern and another.
She switched to full-time after high school and remained there for six more years before moving to Worcester, Mass., with her American-born husband. The pair returned to Winnipeg in 1988, at which point she caught on in the downtown Bay’s fourth-floor china department.
She experienced mental health issues following the birth of their son in 1990 but continued to work as much as possible. In 1993, just as she was set to return from a medical leave of absence, she was informed her services were no longer required.
"This was back in the day when mental health didn’t mean very much," she says, taking a sip of coffee.
Instead of pounding the pavement to look for employment elsewhere, Perkins figured she would start a business of her own, one that would allow her the opportunity to stay home with her three-year-old.
She was familiar with a few Canadian shops that specialized in tracking down replacement pieces for aged sets of china — during her days at Birks and the Bay she often referred customers to a Toronto store called Old China Patterns and another in Vancouver called Echo’s — so took a gamble that a similar venture would be successful here, too.
After a hairdresser-friend helped her come up with a name, she opened Missing Pieces in a spare bedroom in her and her husband’s Kenaston condo in September 1993. Unlike today, when her stock numbers close to 50,000 separate items, everything from gravy boats to serving platters to tureens, she began with zilch on her shelves.
Rather, she branded herself a "locator," a person who was more than willing to beat the proverbial bushes, one butter knife at a time, to unearth whatever people were after.
"It was strictly word of mouth in those days; no Internet, no social media, nothing," she says, noting her two main lines of communication were a phone — she’s not talking about a cell, either — and a fax machine.
"I made up business cards, which I dropped off at all the large department stores in the city that sold china as well as smaller ones like Five Small Rooms, the Glass House and the China Cabinet."
She obviously filled a need; by Christmas that same year she’d made close to $30,000, a tidy sum that surprised even her. "I was like, whoa, I guess I’m going to have to file a GST return. OK, how do I do that?"
Five addresses and two ex-husbands later, Perkins is currently toasting Missing Pieces’ one-year anniversary at its present — she maintains final — location, a two-storey, red-brick house at 646 Academy Rd. that she took possession of during the last week of March 2020.
Hers is a home-based business, that’s true, but the emphasis is definitely on the biz side-of-things. Almost the entire, stately abode has been turned over to her inventory, while she contentedly lets a second-level, 140-square-foot spare bedroom serve as her main living quarters.
"It’s just me and the cat these days. How much room do we really need?" she says, offering to take a visitor on a tour of the premises.
Sporting a Winnipeg Jets jersey — that evening’s game starts in 90 minutes, we’ll have to be gone by then, she jokingly (?) lets us know — she begins the walk-about in the kitchen where every last article in the drawers and cupboards is available for purchase. She would never serve meals on something she’s selling on consignment, she’s quick to point out.
But if it’s a plate or bowl she bought on spec — when a store closes she often bids on surplus merchandise, figuring she’ll find a buyer for it one day — she says why not use it for its intended purpose? (The same goes for her cat Mikado, perhaps the only feline in town that laps cream out of a Dansk mesa blue saucer.)
Off the kitchen is what would be the living room, if it wasn’t loaded floor to ceiling with items from Royal Doulton, her top seller. After walking up two flights of stairs, she shows off one bedroom wholly devoted to flatware, another to English bone china and a third she refers to as the "European room," which houses, to name a few, Arzberg porcelain, made in Bavaria, and sets of Royal Copenhagen, founded in Denmark in 1775. ("Oh, and that’s my room way in the back," she says with a wave of her hand, on the way back downstairs.)
The bulk of her consignment pieces are neatly boxed and sorted in the unfinished basement, save for a set of Rosenthal dishes that just arrived from Toronto she hasn’t had the opportunity to fully examine yet. That lot is resting on a table in what most would use as a dining room.
"Something like that, if it all sells, will go for about $4,000 with the owner and me each getting $2,000," she says, mentioning a lot of people can’t be bothered trying to sell their sets one or two pieces at a time, which is why they reach out to her.
(Hours before we arrived Perkins received an email from a person in Los Angeles who wanted to ship a decades-old set of dishes north, to be sold on consignment. Perkins talked the person out of it, letting her know the cost to get everything here safe and sound would negate any profit the two of them might make.)
Back in her office area, a south-facing lair that likely would have served as a den for the previous homeowner, she shows off racks of Denby dinnerware, another oft-requested brand.
How big or small do orders get? Her staff of two routinely pack as little as a single demi-tasse teacup for contacts as far away as India and Singapore, all the way up to complete sets of china for film crews looking for props for a movie set in the 1940s or ’50s.
She laughs, saying you probably don’t want to watch period films with her, as she’s forever glancing over an actor’s shoulder to determine if a place setting in the background is historically accurate or not. "I’ve seen many a movie where the dinnerware was produced long after the setting of the film. Apparently, I am the only one that would notice such details," she says, chuckling again.
Although Missing Pieces is a retail entity, it’s not as though you can drop by the same way you would at a "normal" store. There is a sign on the front door that lets you know appointments are preferred; not that Perkins doesn’t make exceptions, especially for people who’ve travelled from afar, older customers who aren’t necessarily keen about shopping online.
"Only about 20 per cent of my sales are to Winnipeggers. From time to time, people have planned a vacation around a visit to my place so they can personally examine things I bring out for them, one by one," she says.
"It’s funny because when I first started I didn’t think I’d get repeat customers. I thought somebody would get that certain piece they were looking for and that would be it, I’d never hear from them again. That hasn’t turned out to be the case, at all. There are some customers I’ve been dealing with for 20, 25 years by now."
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Perhaps it’s because she’s been at it for so long and has replaced treasures for so many — her registry contains the names of 20,000-plus past and present clients — that she simply shrugs her shoulders when asked if she ever feels a sense of accomplishment when her detective-work pays off and she corrals a long-lost this or that. "Not really, it’s just what I do," she says nonchalantly.
In that case, why don’t we let an outside party have the last word, a fellow from Toronto who sent Perkins a note a couple of weeks ago to let her know just how much her perseverance and trained eye meant to him and his family?
"The shipment came in today’s mail and in fine shape. In 1962, my wife and I were married, I just out of university and flat broke. As we prospered my wife never her lost her thrifty attitude, although she had more expensive tastes. Our china set was accumulated over a number of years whenever she found appropriate deals.
"On her death she willed many of our special possessions to our daughter when I had no more use for them. I found that those four pieces were missing from the set. My daughter was delighted today when I dropped over to her village and had her open the box for me. Thank you for such excellent and timely service."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Missing Pieces began life in the corner of a room in an 800-square-foot condo on Kenaston Boulevard in the fall of 1993.
Owner Janice Perkins moved from there to a three-bedroom condo following the break-up of her first marriage, with her ever-growing stock occupying one of those three rooms. Next was a River Heights townhouse with a full basement, then onto a home on Borebank Street twice the size of the townhouse. Before she relocated to her present digs at 646 Academy Rd., she operated Missing Pieces out of a commercial building at 484 Academy Rd.
We had to ask: wouldn’t a person in the possession of thousands of cups, saucers and plates want to stay put in one place for a while? Seriously, how difficult a task is it to move a collection that size, especially when every last box would bear the stamp, “fragile, handle with care?”
“I actually enjoy moving and if I do say so myself, I’m a very good packer. When we moved 40,000 items last March, I didn’t use a single piece of tissue to protect anything,” Perkins says, agreeing with the assertion that hers would be a dicey enterprise, indeed, in an earthquake-prone city such as San Francisco.
Also, if you think Perkins spends an inordinate amount of time dusting, think again. Much of what’s for sale is kept behind glass, or stored in meticulously-marked closets and cupboards.
“I don’t feel we dust a lot. What we do more of is move things around so whenever do that, we clean,” she says. “Some customers have asked that same question but honestly, it’s not too bad at all.”