In the late seventies, Yale students flocked to a three-story furniture shop on Whalley Avenue called Rubber Match to buy waterbeds for their dorm rooms. Owner George Zito told the Yale Daily News in 1978 that in the past month he had sold at least a dozen waterbeds to Yale students. On the whole, students were enthusiastically in praise of the mattresses, though one interviewed student noted that “waterbeds are terrible when you’re drunk.” Her story concluded with the claim that Zito would ride the crest of an ever-growing $130-million waterbed industry.
The waterbed wave at Yale may have come crashing down within the year; administrators prohibited waterbeds from dorms because of leaks. But Rubber Match is still around today, despite its long-gone campus renown. These days, Yale students are a rare sight on most of Whalley.
“I’m trying to get the Yale students to go past Popeye’s,” Zito said. “They always stop right there.”
Sheila Masterson, executive director of the Whalley Special Services District, an organization that works to improve Whalley’s security and maintenance to help drive commercial traffic, acknowledged that most businesses on the street don’t hold much appeal for the average college student. For decades after the seventies, the area was dominated by car dealerships and service stations. Even with the addition of the Stop & Shop on the street, New Haven residents generally visit the area to run errands and “take care of the dull stuff,” as Masterson put it. “You wouldn’t come to Whalley Avenue to do your Christmas shopping unless you were buying Mom and Dad a box of pears.”
In October, Zito celebrated Rubber Match’s fortieth anniversary with commemorative mugs, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets. He also recently launched his latest initiative to target Yale students: a Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum. Rubber Match’s walls are now covered with memorabilia accumulated over decades of fandom, recently transported from Zito’s basement. Drawings by Yoko Ono, a plate signed by all four Beatles, and Jim Morrison’s original fingerprints from his arrest in New Haven now mingle with futons and bedspreads.
Drifting in a sea of establishments that cater to adults with cars and steady employment, sixty-four-year-old Zito has spent much of his long career thinking of creative ways to draw Yale students up Whalley. Despite years of mixed success, he is convinced that students would love the shop—if they’d just walk past Popeye’s to find it.
Rubber Match has a decidedly sixties vibe, which Zito notes ought to appeal to college students nostalgic for a decade they never experienced. Signs out front saying “Undefeated Champs!” and “Introducing George-O-Pedic Memory Foam!” are printed in colorful, bubbly lettering that begs to be described as “groovy.” At the back of the first floor, a head shop counter offers hookahs, tobacco, and a variety of marijuana paraphernalia. A Yale sophomore named David Rico visited the shop early last fall and noted that the furniture store and head shop seem oddly segregated, united only by their presence under the same roof. Zito, however, believes the inventory to work well together.
“I call it ‘beds and heads,’” he said of his business model. “We couldn’t say that in the eighties.”
Zito offers discounts to Yale students and free delivery directly to dorm rooms. Aaron Gertler, a Yale junior, purchased a futon there for his suite this year. He said he paid less than a comparable futon at IKEA would have cost. He was also pleased when Zito himself delivered the futon within thirty minutes.
As the shop’s owner, marketing strategist, and primary salesperson, Zito is perhaps Rubber Match’s most intriguing draw. The heavy-set grandson of Italian immigrants, Zito is New Haven born and raised, and not embarrassed to tell one story after the other about himself and his time here: the time he entered a waterbed in a charity bed race down the New Haven Green to generate publicity, the time he gave money to a homeless man who then became a preacher and repaid the money years later, the time he saved a Yale student from a mugging by hurling a club across Whalley Avenue. He corroborates many of these stories with newspaper clippings saved in binders on his desk or framed on Rubber Match’s walls, but they retain mythic proportions.
“People like to claim that New Haven kind of lacks that small-town charm, and certainly Yale has done a great job of commercializing it into chain store oblivion,” Gertler said. “But I think there are opportunities for people to get some of that small-town charm back, and I think one of the ways to do that is by shopping at a place that’s been here since Kingman Brewster was keeping things cool with the Black Panthers in the late seventies.”
Zito thinks the museum is already starting to bring in new customers—but even if that’s true, he will mostly just be making up recently lost ground. The arrival of IKEA in 2004 to New Haven’s retail scene amplified the challenge posed by Rubber Match’s physical distance from campus. Zito estimates his sales in the months of August and September, when students generally outfit their common rooms with futons and beanbag chairs, have been down by ten to fifteen thousand dollars since IKEA opened. He seems to relish the challenge of turning back the clock.
“This for years has been my fight: how do I get my business back again?” Zito said. “I don’t know if we’re going to get it back, but we’re going to get a bigger market share soon.”
Zito’s confidence aside, Rubber Match is still not widely known on Yale’s campus. After more than forty years in business, Zito feels that it’s time to finally solve the puzzle of how to lure students far enough up Whalley to see his futons, his hookahs, his Jim Morrison fingerprints, and the pictures of his grandchildren. He says that if the Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum doesn’t work, he’ll think of something else. After all, in the natural ebb and flow of a college’s population, seniors depart each May and freshmen arrive each August, ready to be persuaded to buy futons and hookahs, and perhaps even a waterbed. Meanwhile, Rubber Match floats on.