Collecting turns into business for homemaker who sells china
BY BRAVETTA HASSELL World Scene Writer
Sunday, December 09, 2012
12/09/12 at 4:26 AM
Nancy Roberts is a changed woman. One can attribute part of that fact to tragedy but more so to the dishes that surround her.
Dishes to decorate, dishes to eat from, dishes to serve, to stow, to collect and to sell.
She draws a piece of English transferware from her china closet and tells you why it's beautiful.
It's a brown and white platter with a design called "Scrolls." It's from about 1820, she says of the dish that depicts a bucolic pasture scene.
"I just love the cattle grazing," Roberts says.
It's just one piece. There are plenty others - sets of pretty china displayed neatly in her dining room. She's not going to sell these, she says.
Roberts says she has always collected something.
Coins with her father - he'd always take metal detectors on their trips. Dolls with big Victorian dresses - her father built her a shelf on which to display them. As a teenager, Roberts' collecting turned to everything Styx.
But Styx and many other items went away about 10 years ago when Roberts' husband, a successful business owner, lost his job.
"To make a long story short, ultimately, we wound up losing everything," Roberts says. "Going through home foreclosure ... losing our cars, I mean everything."
In trying to stay in their home, the Roberts family held garage sales selling personal items, whatever they could to get by.
It's not a story Roberts readily tells. In fact, on the blog she's devoted to décor and her English transferware, she intentionally avoided it at first.
"The plain Jane truth is that I've been afraid to let it all out because I am afraid of what you will think," Roberts wrote. Losing everything was embarrassing. Fair-weather friends faded away.
On a recent afternoon, Roberts doesn't shy from all that happened, but she doesn't linger on it either. Still, it was during that time of extreme financial difficulty and its consequent pressures that Roberts, then a homemaker, reassessed her hobbies - and turned to her dishes.
A chance transaction with a local transferware collector inspired her to revamp the small collection of fine china she'd acquired since young adulthood. She sold some of the pieces online. As they sold, some of the money went to pay bills here and there.
"I didn't make much, but I did make a profit," she says.
Roberts would buy more and sell more, pay more bills. Two to three years later, the hobby of searching and buying, collecting and selling became her full-time job, bringing in the income that would back her family away from the edge of complete loss.
Roberts, once a stay-at-home mom, was now staying home to run a business and keep her family afloat: six kids, who then ranged in age from preschool to adolescence, plus her entrepreneurial husband to whom she's been married for 25 years.
Captured by china
Roberts is passionate about the transferware in a way similar to how her father has been about his stamp and coin collecting.
In the Roberts' home, the dishes are displayed and used in so many ways.
Plates featuring two color transfers - red and black - are incorporated into wallscapes. Roberts' favored Spode "Byron" design is in a wallscape, as well. It's an expansive display, with the dishes showing a variety of quaint farm scenes.
Red-and-white teacups are attached to miniature Christmas trees. Kitchen utensils are stored in transferware pitchers. Other pieces are used as table accents.
Before taking a serious interest in transferware, Roberts was simply attracted to the china because of its beauty: intricate hand-drawn designs in a variety of inks that were transferred onto the stoneware and fired with great heat.
Now, she consumes as much information as she can about it.
"It's known as one of the greatest stories of mass production ever," Roberts explains before listing other facts about transferware, which originated in England.
In Roberts' garage, where only a portion of the dishes she sells are stored, neatly organized on utility shelves, she can pick up virtually any one of the dainty pieces and tell you its age, its origin and even the story that comes along with design.
In front of her "Byron" wallscape, where the plates and platters all have the same green pattern on the perimeter and feature varying scenes using other colors, Roberts becomes an enthusiast.
"This scene up here at the top," Roberts points to a plate, "that was taken from an artist named J.C. Horsley, and he actually designed the first commercially produced Christmas card. So there's just neat little stories behind some of the artwork on these."
Later, Roberts lifts a rose-and-white teacup from a stack of saucers. It has what is called the Jenny Lind pattern. Lind was a Swedish opera singer in the mid-1800s who was brought to America by P.T. Barnum.
"When she came over here, people went nuts, crazy about her, and all of these companies wanted to get in on her name," she said.
She admits she lets the pieces "live" inside her residence before she decides to sell them.
Roberts loves to look at and be around pretty things, "but I don't have to have all of it," she says.
With hardship now more than a decade behind her, Roberts has learned to let go.
Roberts' home is quietly bursting out the seams with china.
There are unseen stashes of transferware hidden under sofa cushions, in console tables and elsewhere.
At the beginning of Roberts' dealing, she had listed online about 300 pieces. Now, she keeps about 1,100 unique listings at her Etsy shop online, adding 10 to 15 pieces a day to replace what she has sold. She wants to get the listings up to 1,500, growing her business at least a little bit bigger but keeping the personalized quality she gets to have with her customers, sharing information and even developing long-term friendships.
Roberts' husband, Shawn, is quick to give his wife all the credit - about "98 percent" of this success is all Nancy. "Maybe 99," he adds with some reflection.
"It's been fun to see her grow, because she went from strictly a homemaker, which is an awesome responsibility in and of itself, to now a pretty savvy business person," Shawn Roberts said. "When she sees something, she knows what it's worth, she can buy it for this, she knows she can get at least this. She's developed her own business acumen."
Roberts has changed, and so has her husband, who years ago juggled multiple businesses and was "out to conquer the world."
But the desire has changed.
The dishes aren't for making ends meet anymore; they are part of an evolving challenge that excites Roberts.
"We don't have any desire to be millionaires," says her husband. "We'd rather concentrate on the quality of our lives, and being good parents and just be thankful to God that she's able to take something she loves to do and just happen to make a living at it."
Roberts signals her agreement. "And I think we've learned to be happy with what we have."
Original Print Headline: Collecting turns into business for homemaker
Bravetta Hassell 918-581-8316
Nancy Roberts with a cabinet of English transferware that she collects and sells from her home. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World