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Jerrod Shaw just wants to sell you a bed. That’s it. He doesn’t want to sell you a bedroom set or a “sleep experience.” No fancy add-ons or extras: no super pillow-tops, no Space Age visco-elastic memory foam. Just a bed. “Nowadays, you can make a bed that is just so comfortable that you probably won’t get out of it,” he admits, but Shaw, the frontman for the Southeast outlet of mattress store Bed-To-Go, isn’t necessarily interested in selling you one of those.

Business is slack on a Wednesday afternoon in late March, as Diane Jackson walks into Bed-To-Go looking for a mattress. A mental-health counselor who lives in Southeast, Jackson wants a mattress based on “price and comfortability,” in that order. The Bed-To-Go sign propped on the sidewalk offering “Beds From $29” caught her eye, and she decided to come in and examine the merchandise.

Shaw turns away from Judge Judy, gets up, and swings into his low-pressure sales pitch. “All the mattresses you see are used returns or trade-ins. They have been sterilized, sanitized, and deodorized. The ones in the black patterns here—under $100 for the set—those are refurbished. We take ’em to our factory, strip them down, clean ’em off, and re-cover them.” Shaw leads Jackson down the row of mattresses set up on the floor. “The prices marked on the plastic, that is top and bottom. We got adjustable frames, also, and those are $25 if you need one. Feel free to test them out; the plastic’s there for one thing—for you to sit on.”

“Do you have any kings?” asks Jackson. Shaw takes her to the rear of the store, where a couple of king-size mattresses are stacked. “You find this in another store, you might pay a couple thousand dollars,” says Shaw. “We sell it for $400, and that’s the most expensive thing we got. That’s top and bottom.”

Jackson looks the mattress over and sits on it briefly. Then she thanks Shaw and leaves, explaining that she’s just looking around today and might come back later. Shaw shrugs it off. “I don’t work for commission,” he explains later. “That’s the greatest thing about this job. As I’m talking to you right now, I am getting paid. So that makes it beautiful.”

The black-owned Bed-To-Go chain turns the conventional retail mattress experience on its back. This franchise, located on Pennsylvania Avenue SE on the east side of the Anacostia River, on a strip with a tattoo-parlor-cum-barbershop and a liquor store, is one of about a dozen in D.C. and Maryland. With walls covered in green-and-tan paneling and a dirty coming-apart carpet on the floor, the store is dingy and unimpressive, conjuring images of urban decay rather than jumping sheep. The mattresses are covered in plastic wrap and dumped on the floor, prices written on the plastic in black marker. A basketball game is usually playing on the small black-and-white TV on the flimsy desk where Shaw sits, smoking cigarettes, talking with friends, and hustling used mattresses from 10 to 7:30 Monday through Saturday.

The 32-year-old Shaw is a one-man show—he tests the mattresses, marks the prices, and deals with the customers and neighborhood characters who come in every day. Shaw tends to those D.C. residents who rest on the hard side of this country’s mattress gap—a dividing line between haves and have-nots marked by stains and smells, or the absence thereof. “Here we don’t have no overhead,” he notes, “so it’s basically—if this was a car dealership, it would be a auction.” In other words, beds from $29 and topping out at $400—box spring included. As Shaw says, “You can’t beat that shit with a stick.”

Say you’re moving on up—from a studio to a one-bedroom, from an apartment to a house—and you’re looking for a new mattress to accompany you on your rise to residential respectability. Where do you look for that perfect bed? Well, if you’re like most of the mattress-buying public, you open the phone book to M and thrill to the range of D.C.-area choices. Industry leaders Mattress Discounters and Mattress Warehouse each feature several separate regional locations, all equipped with factory-fresh name-brand mattresses. Department stores such as Hecht’s and Sears have smaller selections of similar mattresses along with their other merchandise.

High-end retailers such as JoAnne’s Bed and Back and the Healthy Back Store sell expensively engineered spine-friendly mattresses, pillows, and mattress pads. Whether you’re buying on the basis of size, coil count, or spinal support, odds are you’ll find what you’re looking for in one of these places.

But it’s never quite as easy as that. Because people replace their mattresses on average only about once every 10 years, mattress stores will go to great lengths to convince their customers that they should buy their mattresses there and only there. Like most salesmanship, though, it’s usually only so much rhetoric. I stopped in at a local Mattress Warehouse last week, where a salesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted that the difference between one store’s merchandise and another’s is negligible. “The only thing [mattress manufacturers] do different is they put a different name on the mattress—like this is a Squire Parks, and theirs might be the Squire Square. They make ’em for us, and they make ’em for them, and they make ’em for whoever else. You’re getting basically the same bed.”

The slight nomenclature variations make it difficult for customers to cash in on the “price guarantees” promoted by retailers, which are contingent upon the shopper’s finding a lower price for a comparable model.

“We can’t comment on what retailers do,” says Kelly Reynolds, director of public relations for Serta. “In my opinion, I don’t think that is what they do, but I don’t work in retail.” Reynolds flatly denies that the mattresses found in different stores are the same: “They’re different mattresses, so they’re different names.”

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You’d have to be a mattress insider to discern those differences: The inventory, for instance, at Mattress Warehouse and Mattress Discounters looked identical. The Mattress Warehouse salesman confirmed the impression: “All of these, they’ve all got the same steel inside—all made by the same company, Leggett & Platt,” he said, referring to the inner-spring core that constitutes a mattress’ support structure. “So the main difference is that one may have a little bit more padding than the other. It’s not rocket science.”

Then why, if the basics are so straightforward, is mattress-shopping so often a frustrating, confusing experience? He laughed. “‘Let’s confuse everybody’—it’s the American way.”

If that’s the American way, then mattress retailers must be run by great Americans on par with Jefferson, Lincoln, and that guy who lost 400 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches.

Like car dealers hoping to squeeze as much money out of the consumer as possible, mattress manufacturers load their products down with bells and whistles—individual packeted pocket coils, pillow-tops, and other such flavors of the month—and advertise near-constant sales and specials as a means of enticing customers into their stores.

Mattress makers are masters of iconography. Your typical mattress store is a vision in white—pristine, never-slept-in beds lined up in immaculate rows, a paragon of spotless efficiency and a near-complete reversal of most adults’ real-world bedroom situations. Unless you’re the Boy in the Bubble or Howard Hughes or something, chances are your bedroom and bedding aren’t as crispy-clean as the fantasy sleep world idealized in the stores. Mattress companies saddle their beds, especially the high-end ones, with such evocative names as Nirvana Latex Mattress Set, Sovereign Cushion, and Golden Elegance. All this imagery is designed to make consumers believe that they’re not just buying a box of springs and a chunk of foam, but rather making an astute investment in their future health and happiness.

The imagery works because a mattress is among the most personal of possessions. “It’s the old saw—you spend one-third of your life on your mattress—but it’s true,” says Nancy Butler, editor of Sleep Savvy, the magazine of the International Sleep Products Association. Under the covers, whether sleeping, fucking, or convalescing, we are at our most vulnerable. So it’s natural that people ascribe great personal importance to their mattresses, more than other long-term purchases, such as refrigerators or washers. Most mattress consumers demand the assurance that their purchase is healthful, antiseptic, and brand-spankin’-new.

The perception suits the mattress industry just fine. “Most people think [a mattress] is just a rectangle covered by fabric. How complex can it be?” asks Butler. “There are a million different ways to make a mattress. Most feature a tempered-steel-wire inner-spring core. But there’s all kinds of fibers and foam formulas that you can use. The upholstery and installation can vary. For consumers, the bad news is that there’s a lot of choice, but the good news is that there’s a lot of choice.”

More choice than our ancestors had, that’s for sure. The modern inner-spring mattress wasn’t popularized until the 1920s, when mattress pioneer Zalmon G. Simmons began producing the first cost-effective coil-spring mattress. Before then, people basically slept on futon-style mattresses. From medieval times up until the invention of the cotton gin, mattresses were essentially sacks stuffed with straw. “If you think about it, man, before people got to designing and making beds, what were we sleeping on?” asks Shaw. “I mean, I take it as far back as 2,000 years: I know they were sleeping on the floor in the desert somewhere, building pyramids. They had a genius for that, but nobody was thinking about putting metal springs in no containment unit and laying on it or anything like that.”

As cotton became more readily available, it displaced straw as the essential mattress component. But even today, the bulky inner-spring mattress is largely a contraption of the Western world. Millions of people in the Eastern hemisphere sleep on mats or other such flimsy padding.

Still, Western consumers have quickly grown accustomed to the idea that a sleeping surface is just another medium for the application of new technology, ripe for continual hi-tech (and corresponding price) augmentation.

Shaw is familiar with the mattress industry’s bag of tricks. “They come up with these different concepts, something they probably thought of 20 years ago, but they just now bringing it out, creating it in the public’s mind that it’s something new, the greatest craze. And once the public thinks Oh, God, you gotta see this new thing, they can tell you whatever price they want.”

Mattress-company Web sites back the claim that R&D is constantly upgrading the sleep experience. Butler says, “You get what you pay for. If you’re going to go cheap on a mattress, you’re going to get what you pay for in terms of comfort. You don’t really want to go cheap on an investment in your own health.”

To judge from their mattress-buying patterns, local bargain hunters aren’t monitoring the industry’s fibers and foam formulas too carefully. When it comes to mattresses, the question is often twofold: Is it cheap, and is it more comfortable than the floor?

Statistics on the number of D.C. residents sleeping on something other than a mattress—a futon, a sleeping bag, the floor—are hard to come by. Catholic Charities and the United Planning Organization don’t have numbers. Steve Cleghorn at the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness notes that approximately 8 percent of D.C. rental units are overcrowded, but he won’t hazard a guess as to exactly how many nonhomeless people are living without mattresses.

The Rev. Ishmael Reed of the Paramount Baptist Church on 4th Street SE has spearheaded efforts to collect and donate mattresses to his neighborhood’s poor. Although he suspects that there are plenty of mattressless people in the area, he can’t say for sure. “It’s not something people like to talk about. Maybe it’s a matter of pride for some people,” he says.

Shaw deals every day with folks who don’t own mattresses. “A lot of people around, they come in, they give you the story: ‘I gotta get my kids off the floor.’ ‘My kids are sleeping on the couch,’” says Shaw. “Everybody ain’t got a whole bunch of money. I don’t know what the percentage is, but a lot of people around here get one check per month.” When pressed for specifics, Shaw doesn’t have any problem citing a number. “Probably about 30 percent of the people coming in here don’t have a mattress. Maybe they’re moving and discarded their old one; maybe they’re just getting one for someone coming in out of town. Maybe they just don’t have one.”

In the District, the mattress deficit strikes not only indigent people reliant on social services, but also a temporary underclass of interns and preprofessionals who work for next to nothing in exchange for résumé-enhancing experience. Alexa Mills falls into this latter category. A recent graduate of Cornell University and a victims’ advocate at the D.C. courthouse, Mills slept on the floor for months after moving here in September. After Christmas, she decided that, although endurance was a virtue, sleeping on the floor was ridiculous, and that it was time to buy a mattress.

She did her homework, checking out most of the stores in town, and came close to buying a bed at Mattress Discounters. But, as she points out, “Mattress Discounters was a fine place, but it was $300. That would mean I’d have to wait for two paychecks to buy it.” So she went to Bed-To-Go, and she went home with a double mattress and box spring for $139. It took her a couple of weeks to get accustomed to sleeping on what was formerly somebody else’s mattress, but a plastic mattress cover and copious sheeting helped ease her mind. Although she doesn’t see herself taking the mattress when she moves, she’s more than satisfied with her bed as a short-term sleep solution. “Some of my friends think I’m crazy sleeping on this. I feel like the joke’s on them.”

If you’re wondering how a place like Bed-To-Go can turn a profit on $139 double beds, consider how much they pay for their stock. When the Embassy Square Hotel at N and 20th Street closed its doors in February, entire bedroom sets—mattress, springs, frame, and headboard—were on sale for $65. “At any given moment, we may have hotel surplus, damaged/returned goods, returns, overstock, mismatched goods, et cetera,” says Bed-To-Go Vice President Paul Morphy. “Although most of the mattresses we sell are not re-covered, we do have them for sale as well, identifiable by a yellow law tag which reads: ‘Secondhand, contents disinfected.’”

All the refurbished mattresses have been stripped down to the frame, examined, and re-covered, usually in a garish black floral pattern—no snow-white iconography here. “If there’s anything wrong with the frame, we don’t use it,” says Shaw. “They go through a process in which they’re sterilized, sanitized, and deodorized. You can come in here and get you a used Sealy Posturepedic, in which the mattress would probably be $499, $599 alone—come in here and get the whole set for like $200, top and bottom.”

The mattresses are treated and re-covered at an off-limits-to-reporters factory in Maryland, where hot air is blown through them and they’re treated with Microban and Sterifab, state-approved anti-bacterial chemicals. “All of our mattresses—whether new, scratch-and-dent, damaged, or secondhand—are sprayed,” says Morphy.

“As far as where we stand in the industry, we are its black sheep,” he continues. “We deal with rejected merchandise and rejected customers.” It’s a clientele that is largely ignored by other, more respectable stores, and Morphy understands this: “[Other stores] are not interested in our customer base and don’t want to deliver to them, and I think they are being perfectly reasonable. Our customer base is not creditworthy. [But] we have afforded many people the ability to rest upon ergonomically sound mattresses who otherwise could not afford to do so.”

Shaw sums up the Bed-To-Go philosophy more succinctly: “We basically pretty much want to ensure that the poor people of the city can have a decent mattress to lay on.”

Because they’re such intimate products, used mattresses get more scrutiny than your average secondhand item. When buying a used car, for instance, the customer doesn’t usually think to ask exactly how many people have made out in the back seat or how much coffee and sweat have saturated the cloth interior.

Used-mattress dealers, on the other hand, face prospective buyers’ jitters every time they open their doors. “I wouldn’t buy a used mattress,” says Dupont Circle resident Michael McClain. “Not with the common perception of what goes on on a mattress—or what could go on on a mattress.”

We all know what McClain is referring to. But are the scare stories true? Are we really a nation of bed-wetters? Can you really be infected or inseminated by old, dried-out stains? There are three basic fears that surround buying a used mattress: (1) You don’t know who owned it before. (2) You don’t know what they did there. (3) Bedbugs, bedbugs, bedbugs.

The first point is irrational. “Consider your last hotel stay,” says Morphy. “Did you sleep on a mattress? Was it sanitary? Were you the first or the last person to use that mattress?”

The second fear is perhaps more legitimate. People sweat in beds, people copulate in beds, and people probably vomit and urinate in beds, too. Shaw is ready to meet these fears head-on. “If we tear the plastic on any of them, none of our beds have a smell to them. They have been sanitized and deodorized—they do go through that process before any of our stores get ’em. Now, all stains you’re not gonna be able to get out—some people spill fruit punch or something dark. We may see something—the stain may come out; the stain may not. But whenever we notice that, even if we are to sell it, it’s a discounted price. It’s so much at a discounted price that they don’t complain.” And the fact remains that it’s just a stain—not a hot zone. Try licking a red wine stain from the carpet. See if you can still taste the Beaujolais.

Bedbugs may be the most groundless fear. Scourge of mothers and clean freaks everywhere, bedbugs are often discussed but little understood. The common bedbug, or Cimex lectularius Linnaeus, was almost eradicated from North America 20 years ago but has been making a comeback of late, apparently because of an increase in international travel. “It doesn’t matter how old your mattress is,” says Tony Nicro, service manager at C&M Exterminators. “Bedbugs are brought in—it’s not something that just develops. It doesn’t matter the age or condition of the mattress. Yeah, an old mattress with rips and tears will hold them better, because there are more areas to hide in. But a mattress that’s 10 years old with no rips or tears will be just as good as a new one.”

And whereas Butler of Sleep Savvy warns of other “nasty little critters” that are known to inhabit used bedding, they seem to be more of an industry bugaboo than anything else. “You might find dust mites, or fleas, but those can be found anywhere,” says Nicro. “And there are certain insects that can be brought in with new bedding from the manufacturer or warehouse, like carpet beetles.”

Lurking behind all the trepidation about bedbugs, orgasms, and other stuff is a serious information gap: People who walk into a used-mattress store never come face-to-face with those who used to sleep on the mattresses night after night. They can’t cross-examine them about their personal habits, or ask what, exactly, is that brown splotch on the left side?

The only way to perform a background check on your mattress predecessor is to go to the classifieds. I recently checked the listings for used mattresses on Craig’s List and subsequently set up an appointment with Sarah Bacon, a grad student in criminology at the University of Maryland, to look at the mattress she was trying to sell. Going up the elevator in her building, I drew upon my weeks of immersion in the ins and outs of the mattress industry and prepped myself to ask her the hard questions regarding her sanitation habits.

She opened the door upon my knock. She looked clean. My mind blanked.

“Uh, I’m here about the, uh, mattress,” I fumbled.

She pointed to a pink floral-patterned bed in the corner of the living room. “It’s right over there.”

I didn’t really know what to do—I kicked it halfheartedly, put my nose down to it and sniffed, lay down, and rolled around. Finally, the investigative-reporter pills clicked in, and I came up with a hell of a question: “Uh, why are you selling it?”

“I’m moving in with someone,” she stated. “It’s a good mattress. It’s orthopedic.” I nodded knowingly. I would have no idea whether it was orthopedic or not. It was covered in pink flowers—I knew that much.

“So, did you keep it clean?” I asked. “I mean, you didn’t spill anything on it, did you?”

“No,” she said.

I wasn’t about to give up so easily. “And no vomit? Or other…body fluids?”

Thank goodness, she didn’t look offended. “No,” she said, “I always kept it really clean. There was always a mattress pad on it, and sheets, and that egg-crate thing over there.”

It certainly looked clean. It looked just as good as the ones I had seen in Mattress Warehouse or in Bed-To-Go—the same as any mattress I had ever seen, anywhere, actually. All this time learning about mattresses and I still couldn’t tell the difference between a new mattress and a used one. “Well, it looks good to me,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s a good mattress. You’ll sleep well on it.”

And—even though it didn’t have a pillow-top, and I didn’t know anything about the coil count, and I had never ever heard of the brand name—I was sure that I would. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.