Jim Ely was downright giddy as he showed a visitor the trove of Chinese treasures that found their way to his home via a small import business based in Lakewood.
Grinning broadly, the Lakewood man raised the handles of an antique wooden wheelbarrow that no doubt hauled many a load in China. Now it’s a coffee table. A box-like container once used to measure rice now holds an arrangement of pussywillows.
In the backyard, he pointed to a slender boat perched upside down on an overhang sheltering a doorway. How he got it? He had mentioned to importers Anna and Jeff LaBrache that he would love to have one of the peapod boats that he and his wife saw a few years back when they visited the Shennong Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze River.
“Anna was over there this spring,” said Ely, his eyes twinkling. “She e-mails me, ‘Jim, I found your boat.’”
Six months later, the 18-foot peapod boat arrived intact in Lakewood.
Now that’s what you call customer service.
The LaBraches operate Princess Trading Corp., a small business that imports antique and contemporary furniture, garden statues and household items from China. The couple and their two small children live in University Place, but Anna, who grew up in Tianjin city, returns to her birthland every few months to personally select merchandise to bring back.
Jeff shows the furnishings by appointment at their warehouse in Lakewood, and at home and garden shows in the region. If you’ve ever gone to the Puyallup Fair or Tacoma Home & Garden Show, chances are you’ve seen the slender and bespectacled Jeff manning their booth of Chinese antiques and stone lanterns.
Many of the items are more than a century old, but none is more than 300 years old. Chinese law prohibits exporting objects from the time of the Ming Dynasty, which spanned from 1368 to 1644, or from earlier periods, Jeff said.
Old wooden buckets and implements once used on farms are popular. So are Chinese opera benches from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Theater-goers sat on the narrow, plain wood benches while watching opera. Prospective customers sometimes say the seats, which run about 4 feet long and 4 inches wide, look uncomfortable.
“I say, ‘Listen, in the 1800s, to see live entertainment, people would stand for hours. To sit was a luxury.’ Then I have people sit on it and they say, ‘That would be great in my entryway where I could use it to take off my shoes,’” he said. “I sell these faster than I can find them.”
The opera benches typically go for $195, which, he said, is at least half the going price at an import store.
Ely agrees the LaBraches underprice their offerings. Though he acquired many pieces when he taught English at a university in China from 2004 to 2008, Ely and his wife, Rita, continue to collect Chinese furnishings for fun.
“He’s got a great selection. It turns over very rapidly,” Ely said. “The same things would be two times as much in Seattle or Tacoma” import stores.
Jeff said he and Anna can offer modest prices because they don’t have a storefront and the high square-footage costs that would come with it. It’s also their philosophy of business.
When they started importing years ago, he told Anna, “You have two choices. You can charge those (high) prices and eventually you’ll sell everything. Or you can sell them for modest prices and sell them quickly to people who could never afford them. That beat her heart.”
At home shows, Jeff has antique publications on hand to show customers the retail prices of similar objects.
“Our prices are based on what we’re paying for things,” he said, “not the value.”
The show booths display just a fraction of the LaBrache inventory. A mind-boggling array of side tables and lamps, altar cabinets, red lacquer chests, vases, screens and more await visitors at their warehouse. Dazzling washbasin holders, resembling wooden chair frames, gleam with gold paint and intricate, cut-out carvings depicting dragons, flowers and scenes of Chinese warriors doing battle with swords. The drawers of a 200-year-old apothecary cabinet still bear the distinct odors of the medicinal herbs each held.
Ornately carved, maze-like wooden screens that once covered window openings turn out to be a special treat. They were purchased before a recent Chinese law banned the export of antique pieces that were once part of a building.
The couple started the business in the mid-1980s when they lived in Houston and worked at Compaq Computer Corp. Their home was filled with Chinese furniture, and work colleagues who visited started asking where they could find the same pieces, Anna said.
Anna, who has a degree in business, decided to quit Compaq to start hunting for antiques in China and open a store. Word of their business spread among families who adopted Chinese children. Soon, she was taking orders to bring back items from the children’s native provinces to serve as tangible ties to their heritage, a service she continues today.
About eight years ago the couple moved to Pierce County so Jeff, who grew up in Seattle, could be closer to his roots.
Every few months, Anna travels the Chinese countryside in search of inventory, especially items on her customers’ wish lists.
Local people she’s worked with over the years watch for goods and repair the old baskets and furniture she finds. The helpers sometimes drive trucks with the windows rolled down through residential neighborhoods, shouting whether anyone has furniture to sell. “That’s old tradition,” Anna said, “the way people sell things for hundreds of years in China.”
If anyone responds, it’s not a matter of just looking over prospective merchandise and handing over the cash.
Anna might spend hours talking with one family and learning the history of their furniture. “They want to feel what kind of person you are to see whether they want to do business with you or not,” she said.
In the past several years, it’s grown harder to find the good-quality, handmade furnishings that were so abundant a decade ago. China increasingly limits the kinds of antiques that can be exported, and there’s more competition for what’s left.
The growing middle- and upper-classes in China now have the money and interest to buy antiques as an investment. After a decade of remodeling homes in western styles, Anna said, people have begun to focus on traditional Chinese styles.
But Anna doesn’t feel that she’s robbing future generations of their history.
In the villages, she said, “they’re happy to sell these things, get money back and buy big-screen TVs, cars, motorcycles. I had a very funny picture on the countryside. I saw people put scooters in their bedrooms, because they were afraid of losing them. They’d put a 300-year-old antique cabinet in the courtyard; no one would steal it. Every family has those things.”
She finds it fulfilling to provide a bit of Chinese tradition to Americans interested in her homeland. “They enjoy these wonderful old things, at a very cheap price. I figure we’ve got to find products to (lift) people’s heart. In these hard economic times, it makes people excited.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694 firstname.lastname@example.org