Peace, love and waterbeds: Richmond’s best sleep

Originally posted on Richmond Confidential November 8, 2011.

There is a time machine in Richmond that will take you back. Way back. Where 80s crooners sing of careless whispers and sepia-tinted photographs bring you back to the better days of peace and love.

Roland Formica’s shop, Odds ‘N Ends Waterbeds on San Pablo Ave. in Richmond, is the oldest waterbed specialty store in the world. (photo by: Maggie Beidelman)

This blast from the past is actually a mid-sized storefront in Richmond’s North and East neighborhood, where 16 waterbeds are on display, waiting for customers to come in and sit on them. And waiting.

At one time, Odds ‘N Ends Waterbeds on San Pablo Avenue was buzzing with hippies, high on one thing or another, wanting to play their part in the free love saga.

“When you got on that old hippie waterbed, it would rock and roll,” owner Roland Formica says one afternoon. “They said hey, sex is great on these things!”

A 63-year-old former hippie who mills about the store in loafers, gray dress pants and a hoodie, Formica sold his first waterbed 42 years ago for $39. He was trying to make enough dough to buy a camper and visit a girl named Rose he met hitchhiking in New Jersey. But Roland never saw Rose again. He had become hooked on water.

Formica sold his first waterbed in 1969 at the age of 21. He built the frame of the waterbed in this photo. (photo courtesy of Roland Formica)

That was 1969. “They had a waterbed store on every corner,” Formica says. But Formica’s quality beds outlasted the rest, and he came out on top. Somewhere around 1982, back when his main store was in El Sobrante, Formica had a couple of shops and a 10,000 square-foot factory.

Today, 75 percent of Odds ‘N Ends’ sales are online at americasbestsleep.com. The shop is open just four hours a day Tuesday through Friday (11 a.m. – 3 p.m.), and three hours on Saturdays (until 2 p.m.). Formica says he only keeps the shop to keep the name, “World’s Oldest Waterbed Specialty Store.”

“All I really am is a waterbed salesman who’s been hard-headed enough to stick it out,” says Formica. His once blonde hair has gone silver. He’s got a bit of a bald spot. Surrounding him in the store are a selection of things from over the years: plush burgundy patchwork bedspreads, a signed photo of actor James Karen, a collection of 650 waterbed industry magazines, with names like “Waterbed Realty” and “Flotation Times.”

It’s about 2 p.m., and no customers have come in. I have Formica’s undivided attention for the whole of the afternoon as he tells me about the “health benefits of floatation sleep” on a waterbed compared to the horrific experience on a spring mattress, or “dead” bed.

“The old hippies, they went out and bought dead beds and were never happy. They’re coming back and buying waterbeds now,” says Formica, legs crossed, leaning against a dresser like a salesman truly at ease with his product.

Formica raised his three kids on waterbeds, starting with a crib size. His father slept on one until the ripe age of 94.

He can tell you everything you need to know about waterbeds: single or dual bladder, seamless fiber, hard-side versus soft-side. He’ll tell you how to burp your waterbed, how the industry has adopted wave-reduction standards for more stable waterbeds, and how sleeping on today’s waterbeds, which are filled with foam padding, is like sleeping on a sponge.

But there’s no telling how comfortable a waterbed bed is until you try it.

When Formica insisted I try out a couple of beds, I was skeptical. How could a waterbed be any better than my two-and-a-half inch memory foam topper and Ikea Sultan Harestua mattress combination?

Oh, but it could.

Formica puts a pin in his office map for the location of every customer who purchases a waterbed from him. (photo by: Maggie Beidelman)

With one leg up and over the side of the bed, I instantly sunk into the comfort of soft waves, my eyes heavy with their sumptuous tide.

“I don’t have to sell beds,” Formica proclaims. “I just have to get people to lay down on them.”

No kidding. I’m already calculating in my mind how I can get my student loans to cover the purchase of a new waterbed (Queen size: $699 to $1,659).

Last month, Allen Salkin of The New York Times finally caved in and purchased a waterbed from Formica, eight years after writing a story about the shop. He said he never forgot the feeling of sinking into those display beds and decided it was time to grace his New York apartment with the real deal.

Like Salkin, most of Formica’s customers do business with him online. An in-store customer is rare. But Formica’s not worried. According to him, waterbeds are as popular in Germany today as they were in the United States “in the hippie days,” except that they cost three to five thousand euros a pop. Formica’s most expensive king-sized bed sells for $1,959.

In an unforeseen turn of events, a German waterbed retailer recently flew out to meet Formica, bought two tickets for Formica and his daughter to attend a waterbed convention in Germany next January, and offered him 12 percent of profits off the retailer’s website if he could use Formica’s image and story as the “godfather of waterbeds.”

Facing a slimming clientele — mostly former hippies returning to their days of dreamless sleep — and $8,000 a year in property taxes, Formica accepted.

It’ll be his first trip to Europe and he is excited. The only thing Formica is concerned about is his “dead beds” label for standard spring mattresses — which has apparently been translated into German as “death beds.” But either way you look at it, the waterbed wins.

This will not be Formica’s first convention. Back in the Odds ‘N Ends’ heyday, he would go to conventions all over the States — and then schedule scuba diving trips nearby. Like the time he presented at a waterbed convention in Florida and then dove in the Bahamas (where, he says, he nearly got the bends).

“I’ve done every kind of dive there is. Lake dives, cave dives. I’ve chased sharks, dove with a humpback whale by accident one time…was followed by a piranha,” Formica tells me nonchalantly over tacos at the Mexican food restaurant next door, where we’re the only customers.

“You’re scared before you get in and after you get out, but once you’re in, you don’t think about it,” he says. “When you’re in the water — it’s because of the awe, you know? It’s just so beautiful.”

It sounds like being on a waterbed, I think out loud.

“Yeah, it’s like riding a motorcycle, too,” says Formica, who also likes to ride his Honda 350 through the mountains. “Sometimes, you’re on a bike, you’re up in the mountains on the most beautiful country roads — you forget about everything.”

Though it was a girl that first drove Formica into the business, I now understood that it was this zen that kept him in it over the years. With the waterbed, Formica can give a little peace to those who heed his mantra: “Life is so short. (Get a waterbed).”

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