Sheet merchant answers a dream

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I recently wrote -- whined -- about no longer being able to find the kind of sheets I want. Those crisp sheets woven so tightly your sleeping body barely leaves a dent. No soft stuff, ridiculous thread counts or "special" finish. Just sheets that feel baked in the sun on flat rocks somewhere very hot.

Sheets like my Nana had, I bemoaned in that column.

So many of you, men and women alike, responded with sympathy and suggestions. You understood my pain and I had some great chats on the phone with a number of fellow sheetophiles. My editor was stunned, but I knew my people were out there, suffering along with me.

In dozens of communications, one thread emerged as the most probable solution. And when Joan dropped off the catalog at my desk, I could see why.

"The Vermont Country Store" is a seller of things you either (A) never knew existed, or (B) completely forgot about, such as Fels Naptha laundry bar soap -- which I personally know to be magical for stain removal -- and Tangee lipstick. Rotary dial phones with the heft of the original Bakelite cases, that folding Bulova travel alarm your grandma packed for visits, Munsingwear men's briefs with the "kangaroo" pouch, which I will not go into here.

Christmas ribbon candy, the same "Mystery Date" game you giggled over in fifth grade and real maple sugar candy in the shape of maple leaves. Like the ones my friend Ann brought to my sixth-grade birthday party and I've drooled over the memory ever since.

OK, I am reining myself in now.

The Vermont-based company is a merchant of memories, a purveyor of nostalgia and marketer of "the good ol' days." And sheets, specifically its line of "Clothesline Crisp" sheets, right there on page 73 of the "Christmas Preview 2012" catalog.

These people have obviously been eavesdropping inside my brain. "Rediscover the cool, fresh joy of your grandmother's sheets," the catalog description says. "Why don't sheets feel crisp and cool they way they used to?"

EXACTLY!

But if no one makes them, how can this store sell such rare treasures as decent sheets?

The company hasn't stayed in business since 1946 by chance, company marketer Ben Nooney said. "We listen to what our customers want. We find an old formula, or we find a company that still makes it -- just because it's not in Walmart doesn't mean its not being made."

His father, Lyman Orton, is the "consummate merchant," noted Cabot Orton, proprietor of the company's physical store in Weston, Vt., and one of Lyman's three sons who work in the family business.

Lyman took over management of The Vermont Country Store in 1972 from his parents, Vrest and Mildred. His instinct for merchandise and marketing grew the New England company from its starts in 1945 as a 12-page catalogue of 36 items.

Today the business employees hundreds of people and has millions of customers, it says.

Those customers seem to appreciate his dad's ability to anticipate unmet needs, Cabot said from his Vermont office.

The Clothesline Crisp sheets are the perfect example, he told me, once we had decided together internet shopping is no substitute for the tactile pleasure of leafing through a catalog, thumbing back a few pages once a trigger has gone off in our brains.

"Anyone can go online or find 300 kinds of sheets at Bed Bath & Beyond, spending hundreds on imported sheets. But there is still a significant audience who want our sheets. "

In the global market, the biggest spenders get to decide what the rest of us will have to choose from. Somewhere along the line, some group fell for the "softer is better and higher thread counts matter" campaign. Yet the minority who don't want to sweat against their bedding is pretty darn big, Cabot said.

Nostalgia aside, your grandmother's original sheets aren't going to be the answer today. Those were made for thinner mattresses, the kind we all slept on before the bedding industry compelled us to buy the 17-inch, or higher, behemoths we have now.

A Vermont Country Store's purchasing agent, Danila, spent a year trying to find a seller of such crispy sheet wonders for modern beds, or a company willing to try to meet the need, he added. Lucky for people like me, Danila didn't stop until she had success.

These sheets are manufactured to echo yesterday but take advantage of modern technology. Unlike my grandmother's day, homemakers no longer spend an inordinate chunk of a week laundering bedding (or anything else, generally), running sopping sheets through a mangle, which left a wrinkled product needing devoted ironing.

Now, the price might make Grandma gasp -- a set of "Clothesline Crisp" fitting a queen bed runs a nickel under $100. However, my own investigation into the matter tells me that figure is but a drop in the laundry tub in this new world order of specialized bedding.

His father is adamant, Cabot said. "Our products have to solve a problem. We sell a lot of great gifts, but at the end of the day, most solve a problem."

The company sells thousands of these sheets sets a year, he added. "It's a cult following."

I'm thinking about becoming just such a member.

And Danila, give me a call. I have some other ideas for you.

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