As teenagers, my sister and I made some extra cash by working evenings and weekends wrapping packages at a fancy gift shop in our New England village. It was an awe-inspiring place full of very breakable treasures: you barely dared breathe! The woman who owned it was charming: formidable yet with thick, grey hair half falling down out of a rather messy ‘do’ and reading glasses on a beaded chain around her neck – always in the way – she had a warmth that made her less forbidding as a monarch. The shop, very New England with its wooden hand painted sign swinging outside and its wide shop windows in old greys and greens, was usually pretty deserted in summer months. Yet between the week before Thanksgiving up until the closing minutes of Christmas Eve (5 pm back then), it was a hustle and a bustle.
There was absolutely no room to pack the gifts. Our elbows were in a constant fox trot with each other and my sister (or I ) always had the tape when I (or she) just needed it. Four hands did make for light work and we got rather good at missing one finger to help tie the other’s knot all the while proceeding with the paper on our own next package. We had a wonderful time, nonetheless for knowing what all the neighbors and their wives were going to unwrap on Christmas morning before they did: shared secrets!
One summer our boss had a great idea. Pressed with a cellar overflowing with bits and pieces as well as extensive collections of china patterns long out of date or incomplete, she put us to work. ‘Clean the dishware up, give it some kind of order and we’ll open up the cellar, ’ was her order, ‘and you two will see to it that it all gets sold!’ Happy to have a way to earn outside of the holiday chaos, we went to work. We lovingly washed and dried the most amazing of pieces as yet unrecognizable under a decade’s worth of dirt: huge tea pots with only a matching sugar bowl, gorgeous gilt dinner plates, just 7 in number, arrays of creamer pitchers both large and small, not a match for anything else. All spectacularly beautiful! We cleaned off the cellar’s ivory colored wooden shelves and arranged our wares, feeling very protective, serious, even commercial. However, the commercial interests melted spontaneously as we fell in love with piece after piece which we were allowed to buy for a song and take home…our earnings were slim.
And then, the next Christmas rush, our wares sold like hot cakes, flying off the shelves. Not only did people find the broken and missing pieces for their own dinnerware patterns, a single creamer or tea pot became a cherished gift: for flowers, for a sideboard tableau, a bedside table. Vintage, ‘brocante’ avant la letter as this was all quite some time ago. The two of us also had the chance to go wild with wrapping: we had room to move and our own little commercial kingdom. More paper and ribbon went into those odd, single pieces than there was ever time for upstairs in the shop. We packaged everything with utmost care and got rather good at it in the process.
The cellar is clearly where my love of mix and match old porcelain was born: matching dinner sets are so, well, boring. The hunt, the find, the singular piece long discarded, then the tissue paper, stiff wrapping paper, the tight knot and abundant ribbons: happy holidays and instant heirlooms!