F or 40 years now—34 of them in the same Whalley Avenue location at the corner of Sperry Street—the Rubber Match furniture dealer and “countercultural variety store” has dealt in a basic element of many dorm rooms, the futon, as well as the more adventurous collegian’s choice, the waterbed.
But there’s another quintessential piece of classic dorm-room furnishing that tends to get overlooked next to all those mattresses, frames, headboards, and bunks.
The beloved bean bag chair.
Rubber Match agrees that the bean bag chair deserves more respect. So an entire third-floor room of the funky converted-house showroom has been dedicated to the humble pillowy foamball-filled seat. “They’re American-made, in South Carolina,” crows Rubber Match founder Gennaro George Zito. The ‘beans’—Styrofoam balls—in them are larger than you get from China. That makes the difference.”
Plop into a bean bag and the world slows down. It’s a soft landing for a hard day, a place to read, snooze, daydream or just veg out. First developed in Italy in the late 1960s, the bean bag chair has been celebrated in the Peanuts comic strip (as
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Lucy and Linus’ TV-watching chair of choice) and in a song by the alt-rock band Yo La Tengo. It may never have shed its deep association with the 1970s, but it hasn’t really gone out of style either.
“We’ve been carrying them forever,” Zito says of the beanbags. “They’re a retro-college product we always like to do.” But, he points out, some of the designs currently on display are brand new—animal prints like zebra or leopard, or tie-dye patterns, or Army camouflage designs, standing out amid the usual shiny one-colored vinyl bags. Rubber Match’s preferred brand is Bean Bag Boys Inc. of Lexington, SC. The company’s website boasts of using lead-free vinyl inks and environmentally friendly recycled filler material. Bean Bag Boys began making bean bag chairs in 1990, its site states, because “we noticed that the only bean bag chairs you could buy were horribly designed, yucky-colored, and grossly inferior quality. We thought that wasn’t right.”
An entire room of bean bag chairs is a sight to behold. The small upstairs Rubber Match room resembles a playroom, with light
streaming in the windows. Imagine the possibilities of having so many bean bags at your disposal. You could have the most relaxed business meeting imaginable. Big family gatherings would be much more relaxed. Or you could throw the pillow fight to end all pillow fights.
A visit to Rubber Match is a pleasant flashback to an age when things were round and big and fluffy. On the walls are signed photos of meteorologists Geoff Fox and Dr. Mel, wrestler Sgt. Slaughter, folksinger John Hiatt, magicians Penn & Teller, and stoner icons Cheech & Chong. Zito just donated a hookah to a WPLR radio event honoring the Furthur Festival and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.
Zito himself is something of a local celebrity, renowned for the wacky TV commercials which ran incessantly on local cable throughout the 1990s. He’s in the grand tradition of jovial furniture dealers who use a personal touch to distinguish themselves from the huge national chain stores. In his case, Zito’s also selling products for a certain frame of mind.
Allowing bean bags their own room is meaningful, given the limited space available for Rubber Match to exhibit its wares. Zito encourages customers to go on the store’s website—it has (ahem) a retro feel, too—and browse there, then come in to the store for additional discounts. “We’re selling a lot of furniture lately,” he says, as the national economy rebounds. “Things are getting better and better.”
From the vantage point of a bean bag chair, everybody’s sitting pretty.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.