Zzzzz ... shop specializes in perfect sleep
A tiny shop in an old row house on Zhejiang Road S. in Huangpu District is easy to overlook when passing by. A mottled board outside simply says: Cotton Wadding: A Century-Old Store.
The shop specializes in the soft filler for duvets. In winter and early spring, customers wait in long queues to buy the wadding. This may be the only shop in Shanghai that still sells the cozy quilt material.
“Although silk or eiderdown comforters are widely popular today, some people prefer to stick to traditional cotton ones, feeling that they are warmer and more comfortable,” says Wu Yanhua, manager of the store.
Having worked in the store for about a decade, Wu is well versed in the history of the founding Ma family. In its early days, the first floor of the shop was the salesroom and the third floor was a cotton-fluffing workshop. Ma’s family lived on the second floor.
“The store is as old as the three-story row house it’s in,” Wu says. “The Ma family once owned three floors, but later they lost two of them.”
In the 1970s, the founder of the store passed away, and management of the shop passed to his wife for a time. The store was later purchased by a state-owned firm that has left the business largely unchanged.
The Ma family still owns two rooms on the second floor. The founder’s descendents visit from time to time, but they don’t take part in management anymore.
Inside the shop, time seems to have frozen. Though there have been minor modifications over the years, little really has changed. The second and the third floors became storage areas piled with cotton wadding. An old-style crane is still used to move merchandise from delivery trucks on the street through the upstairs windows.
“Even the counters and wall decor are the same as they used to be,” Wu says. “The only change is that we installed a fire sprinkler and mended a hole in the ceiling through which they used to throw down the wadding.”
Wu says the store’s products remain popular because they have undergone upgrading over time.
Traditional handmade duvets were heavy, and the wadding inside would sometimes lump up. They needed to be fluffed regularly.
“Our wadding is made of Xinjiang cotton, which has longer fibers and weighs less,” Wu says. “The shape lasts a long time. They are machine made. Not everything is better handmade.”
When a customer comes to shop, Wu swiftly climbs the narrow staircase to the storage area upstairs to fetch wadding. It is then covered in a thin gauze wrap so that the loose cotton doesn’t stain the comforter cover. With neat moves, everything is done quickly and efficiently.
“Practice makes perfect,” Wu says. “For new staff, it’s sometimes difficult for them to just to walk up and down the old staircase. The first thing they need to learn here is how not to fall and hurt themselves.”
Wu says the store’s clientele used to be mainly elderly folks, but in recent years, the young generation seems to have latched on to the pleasure and comfort of cotton quilts.
“Many parents come here to prepare dowries for their daughters, and they might buy five or six packs of wadding at a time,” she says. “Young couples who use the comforters frequently become our customers as well.”
She cites the example of one family where four generations have been loyal customers.
Before Wu’s arrival, the shop was mostly staffed by retired people wanting to earn a little extra money. As they grew older, they left, though some still return to visit from time to time and lend a hand when the store is extremely busy.
“When there were only one or two seniors working here, the workload was beyond their capability,” says Wu, in her 40s. “That’s why I was hired. I love the job, especially seeing the contented expressions on customers’ faces.”
The store has received kudos online. On Dianping.com, one of China’s largest product review websites, customers say they are grateful that the store has continued its business when major bedding manufacturers have largely ditched cotton wadding.
“I have always loved cotton wadding comforters, but now it’s very hard to get a good one,” said a Dianping reviewer whose screen name is “metoo20834.”
“I haven’t found any other store selling cotton wadding in Shanghai for a long time. There are many news reports about unscrupulous manufacturers making and selling comforters made of bad-quality cotton. But in this store, you can be assured that the wadding comes from good hands.”
Wu says there has been speculation for years that the street area might be earmarked for urban renewal.
“It would be very sad if this store had to bid farewell to its longtime home,” Wu says. “I give my phone number to all our customers so they can find us if we are relocated. It's said that a redevelopment plan will probably be taking place, but I think we will still be here for a while.”