Billy Stevens of Durham describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur”: he’s run a restaurant, lectured on blues, sold game boards, toured the world with a one-man rock ’n’ roll show.
In the serial’s latest episode, he’s selling mattresses.
“I never in a million years dreamt I would become a mattress salesman,” he said the other day.
Not just any mattresses, though: toxin-free organic mattresses – and pillows, sheets, mattress pads, crib mattresses and pet beds – by the Savvy Rest company of Charlottesville, Va.
“Only because,” said Stevens, 59, “I’m a testimonial.
“We bought a bed and fell in love with it and I saw an opportunity.”
Six years ago, Stevens knew nothing about the bedding industry. A 1974 Duke graduate, he was a musician and “part of the off-campus hippie community” who gravitated, by the late ’70s, into partnership with the late renowned jazzman Yusuf Salim in Salaam, an Islamic restaurant and jazz club on West Chapel Hill Street.
In the ’80s, he was playing in the local rock bands Red Herring and Boney Maroney, then he came up with a one-man “History of Rock and Roll” show and took it overseas on behalf of the U.S. Information Agency. In south Asia, he encountered carrom – a board game like finger-powered billiards, known in the U.S. in a kids’-game form, but a serious, hugely popular sport in its region of origin.
Stevens learned the game, figured it would catch on in its grownups’ form in the U.S. and started an import business with carrom boards from India – meantime finishing eighth in the 1995 World Carrom Championships in Sri Lanka, organizing a U.S. Open Carrom Tournament in Raleigh the following year and seeing himself written up in Sports Illustrated.
Then, six years ago, he and his wife needed a new mattress. Fine night’s sleep
A friend let him try one made of natural latex. After a fine night’s sleep, Stevens started investigating. Impressed with Savvy Rest Inc.’s website, he made a purchase and within a week had called the company to ask if Savvy Rest could use a salesman in the Triangle. Since then, he’s been a part-time mattress dealer.
His mattresses aren’t inexpensive. A queen-size starts around $3,000, he said, but that’s not much more than a top-of-the-line conventional mattress and there are offsetting qualities.
Conventional mattress material, he said, is made of petrochemicals and treated with toxin fungicides and fire retardants that seep into the bedroom air. Natural latex bedding is petroleum-free, Stevens said, and the quilted-wool covers are naturally fire-retardant. Plus, the mattresses are made up of separate latex layers of varying firmness, combined to suit the customer’s personal comfort.
Latex mattresses “last forever,” too, he said. – people are still sleeping on Sears models from the 1950s.‘Happy customers’
Janet Zelman of Chapel Hill found Stevens’ sales pitch “low-pressure” and “informative,” she said, and she and her husband, Bill, were sold.
“We’re happy customers,” Bill Zelman said.
They hadn’t heard of organic bedding until a couple of weeks ago, Bill Zelman said, when a friend “not prone to hyperbole” had raved about the comfort and the eco-advantages.
“We’re very environmentally sensitive,” said Janet Zelman. “No off-gassing with these.”
“And it’s made in the United States,” said Bill Zelman.
Actually, some of the latex is from India, but the rest is made in Connecticut, the casings and “foundations” (wood frameworks that take the place of box springs) are made in High Point and final assembly is in the buyer’s bedroom.
“I deliver them, I set them up for people and if people have any issue after the sale, I make house calls,” Stevens said. “There are so many selling points. ... This is the easiest thing I do.”Model bedroom
Stevens has a model bedroom and storefront office at 2011 Chapel Hill Road, and a larger showroom next door in a building he bought to store and ship carrom boards and keep his antique motorcycles. Upstairs in the same building there’s an open space he rents out for parties.
He’s a touring artist with the state Arts Council, does shows and lectures on Southern music here and there, plays keyboards in the band South Wing and from time to time still takes rock ’n’ roll history overseas for the USIA.
“I’ve found all these things I enjoy doing and I get satisfaction out of doing all of them and I didn’t want to give up any of them,” Stevens said. “And unfortunately, I keep adding.”