Sandra Keene has upwards of 1,200 vintage dinner plates—and all the other pieces that go with them, from the side dishes to teacups and saucers. It’s a lot of place settings; some might even say it’s a Martha Stewart–level collection. And every last piece is available for anyone to rent, for a tea party, a wedding reception, or a fun dinner with friends.
Keene started her collection—and her company, China Grove in West Newbury—to keep beautiful dishes out of landfills while making it possible for people to use them without having to own them. “I have seen so much china ending up in junk stores or being thrown away,” says Keene, who launched China Grove a few years back as an eco-friendly dishware rental service. “People were telling me stories about how they cleaned out their parents’ house and they had no idea what to do with all the china.”
At the same time, studies show that millennials aren’t even registering for china anymore. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what are they going to do when they have a party?’” Keene says. “They’re going to miss it.”
And now they can find it in Keene’s tiny storefront in West Newbury. Clients can contact Keene with a desired color palette, an event theme, or even an era (think chunky brown 1970s style or blue Pfaltzgraff from the 1980s) and she will pull from her collection to craft a table setting that is beautiful, unique—and mismatched. Because while Keene’s dinnerware is lovely, the maximum number of matched settings she has is in any single pattern is about 12, and many are less complete.
“Sometimes you end up with six dinner plates, because two got chipped, but there are still eight saucers and only seven tea cups, but I don’t even care about that,” Keene says. “I just bring in the items that look nice. There’s always a way to mix and match it, put it with something else to get the quantities that we need.”
To create a beautiful tablescape, Keene draws upon her interior design degree and previous experience in visual merchandising for places like JCPenney and The Paper Store. “I love rescuing pieces of history and sharing them with others,” Keene says. “With a little love and care, these items can be brought back to life, bring people joy, and foster a sense of legacy.”
Indeed, for a recent bridal shower, the table settings incorporated the bride’s grandmother’s china collection, supplemented with pieces rented from the China Grove, creating a legacy and conversation starter as well. The unique collection of tableware often serve that function, Keene says. “I’ve watched people come in and start talking about the plates,” she says. “It breaks the ice a little bit.”
While you are guaranteed something unique, you won’t find rare or particularly costly pieces—the risk of a guest dropping a piece of priceless crystal or shattering a one-of-a-kind dinner plate is something Keene doesn’t want to worry her clients with. Rental pricing is simple: $2 per piece for a basic setting or $2.50 per piece for premium plates, like her antique Noritake from the 1920s.
Keene’s collection comes to her in myriad ways. People contact her with pieces to sell, and she has also been known to scour the Internet seeking specific pieces for a particular event. Recently a bride inquired about building a 1970s-themed wedding and Keene set to work looking for pieces. Other times, people just want their china to go to a good home instead of the curb, and they will give it to Keene outright. In return, she donates a portion of the proceeds from every rental of those pieces to the charity of the donor’s choice.
It’s not just dishes she’s saving from the landfill; Keene has put careful thought into her packaging as well, to ensure as little waste as possible. Instead of packing tape, she seals her boxes with reusable cotton rope, and rather than environmentally unfriendly bubble wrap, she puts squares of felt between the dishes to keep them from scratching.
Right now, China Grove pieces are available exclusively within driving distance of the North Shore—shipping would be risky from a damage perspective, as well as less environmentally friendly, Keene says. Her five-day rental period enables plenty of time for transport, packing, and unpacking—and for an additional fee, she will deliver and pick up.
Ultimately, Keene hopes that her service will encourage people to shrink their environmental footprint while still having a good time. “Encouraging the use of items already in the market helps move us away from disposables and over-buying,” she says. “I do love parties because life is short and worth celebrating to the fullest. Every person and every party is unique, but the common denominator is love. Taking the time to thoughtfully choose very special place settings is an extension of that love to your guests.”
450 Main Street, West Newbury, 987.457.6929, thechinagrove.com