Wake-Up Call for New Shop

Beth Lee Schlendorf was struck by the idea that she and her family were spending a third of their lives sleeping on a possibly toxic soup
Durell Godfrey

    When Beth Lee Schlendorf purchased a memory foam mattress a couple of years ago, she had no idea that it would spark an idea to start a business. The synthetic slab, which she later discovered comprised more than 60 chemicals, was so smelly that she was warned by the store she purchased it from to air it out for between 24 and 48 hours. When she began to get headaches she was struck by the idea that she and her family were spending a third of their lives sleeping on a possibly toxic soup. It was a wake-up call that put her on a mission to find out what mattresses are made of.

    “I spent a year researching,” she said, explaining that the business is not an easy one to wade through. Many so-called “natural” or even “organic” mattresses contained some natural materials, but were still primarily petroleum-based, she discovered. Then the proverbial lightbulb went off. If she was having so much trouble making sense of the industry, others must be too. She decided to open a store where, having done the legwork, she would offer customers her expertise. She opened Bliss Sleep Center, at the corner of Hayground Road and Montauk Highway in Water Mill, last spring. 

    Having worked as a banker — she was a vice president at Citibank — her new career wasn’t an obvious choice. Though she had always thought she might one day open a store, she figured it would be a clothing boutique. “But when I learned all about this stuff, it became a passion.” Her husband, Micah Schlendorf, president of the Southampton Chamber of Commerce and a vice president of Suffolk County National Bank in East Hampton, helps with marketing. The couple live in Eastport.

    Not trusting industry hype, she visited factories to see for herself how manufacturers complied with organic standards. She finally chose four companies whose wares she sells. “All are the purest on the market at the most reasonable prices,” said Ms. Schlendorf. Most are made with a core of natural latex, which “cradles your spine and is good for support,” and cotton and wool. Latex, she said, “was in our great, great, great-grandfathers’ beds.” Besides being soft, cotton and wool offer natural flame-retardant features and are dust, mold, and mildew resistant.

    “Flame-retardant chemicals can spark nervous system disorders and can cause cancer,” according to Bobbi Chase Wilding, deputy director of Clean and Healthy New York, a nonprofit that promotes policy and market changes related to safer chemicals.

    Queen mattress prices at Bliss range from $700 to $3,700, and all are handmade to order. Bliss also carries seven toppers made of wool, cotton, or natural latex ($400 to $1,600). 

    On a recent visit to the store, Annie Veltri of Amagansett was testing different mattresses and toppers. Ms. Veltri, who suffers from allergies and felt she needed a natural bed “to breathe easier,” was impressed by the fact that Ms. Schlendorf had asked them a series of questions to guide them through the complicated decision-making process. Questions such as: Do you sleep hot? Do you have back issues or aches? Do you toss and turn?

    Both husband and wife had different sleep issues so Ms. Schlendorf demonstrated how each side of the bed could be customized. “Everything in the store can be customized,” said Ms. Schlendorf, mentioning pullout couch mattresses and dog beds as two examples. Ditto for pillows, of which the store carries nine kinds. As she showed the couple pillow filler options including buckwheat, she let them handle a soft cotton-like substance called kapok, from a seedpod from the rain forest, which is another filling.

    The store, which also carries organic duvets, sustainable wood bed frames, cribs, furniture, and products from Sag Harbor’s Pure and Peaceful, which makes essential oil-derived items from linen spray to tick repellants, has been doing very well. There was a spike in business after HBO aired “Toxic Hot Seat,” a documentary about the perils of flame-retardants. Business is going so well, in fact, that Ms. Schlendorf is planning to open another store farther west.

    As for that memory foam mattress? “We threw it out, along with three other mattresses we’d just bought.” What do they sleep on now? “A bed from Savvy Rest. It’s changed my husband’s life,” she said. “He used to get headaches three times a week. He thought it was work, but after three months on the mattress he said,  ‘Wow, I haven’t head a headache in three months.’ And he stopped tossing and turning.” What about snoring? “Well, he doesn’t snore as much. I’d say it’s eliminated his snoring by 70 percent.”