Local business owner Calvin Palmer runs Quality Mattress Warehouse with his wife of 42 years, Priscilla. Calvin is a gregarious man, easy to talk to and quick to share a story. He is spirited and optimistic, and these characteristics belie his age; Calvin has the energy of a much younger man, and the overall appearance of a man who has lived life cleanly.
As a small child, Calvin lived with his family in Dublin, Georgia. But at the age of ten he moved to Macon, where his father opened a tire shop. Calvin grew up in the shop, learning his father’s trade. After graduating from Mark Smith High School (now Northeast High School), Calvin went off to Georgia State University. When he completed his education in Atlanta, he returned to Macon to go into the tire business with his family.
Staying in Atlanta after college wasn’t even an option Calvin considered. “In Atlanta, traffic controlled my life. Even back in the 70’s when I was living there, I had to plan my entire day around it,” explains Calvin.
In 1976, Calvin and Priscilla were married at Vineville Baptist Church. For their honeymoon, they had planned to go to Williamsburg for the centennial celebrations. “As we traveled north, we saw that people were not taking credit cards. I don’t remember what was going on at the time, but everyone wanted to be paid in cash. Of course, we couldn’t just go to a bank anywhere back then, and when we got to about North Carolina we were afraid we would run out of money,” Priscilla recalls, “so we came back to Georgia.”
The newlyweds stopped at a bank in Georgia, replenished their supply of cash, and continued southward to Walt Disney World. Their patriotic honeymoon turned into a vacation at the happiest place on Earth.
The young couple returned to Macon, where Calvin set about starting a shop of his own, with his new bride Priscilla working by his side. “People sometimes ask what it’s like working side by side, but I don’t have any point of reference because this is all I’ve ever known,” Calvin explains with a smile.
“I didn’t set out for it to be like this,” adds Priscilla. “I never had a plan that we would own a business. When I was growing up, my parents always worked for someone else, so this was completely foreign to me, but it’s worked out.”
Calvin and his wife have two sons, Dennis and Trey, who live in Nashville, and one daughter, Kendall, who lives near Peachtree City. Like their father before them, Calvin’s children grew up in the tire business. “I made them come down [to the shop] when I had the tire business going, and I had them work, basically to discourage them from working in the tire business,” he chuckles. “I made then work hard enough so that they’d go out and do something else.”
Priscilla adds in, “And they did!”
Growing up in a family business taught the Palmer kids some valuable lessons. Reflecting, Calvin remarks that “they learned what hard work is like, and they aren’t afraid of hard work.”
Today, both Dennis and Trey are self-employed. Trey works for a construction company, and he also has a side-business where he specializes in installations. Dennis is a full-time musician who earns a living through both performance and teaching.
“I think that my children realized that they didn’t have to have an employer to make money, they could go out and do something to make money on their own without having to depend on someone to give them a job,” Calvin says.
“Having parents who owned a business…they learned the ebb and flow of business and profit, so I think it acquainted them with how m0ney works,” Calvin explains, adding that, “I don’t think people understand that as much today.”
Over time, Calvin’s business has evolved. “We first moved here in this building [at 1464 Emery Highway] in ‘84. We had a tire shop, an alignment shop, a garage, a mechanic shop. I wanted to have a big auto mall. Well, as things progressed, I had the people who were renting the spots from me, and they went off to work for somebody else. Finally, it boiled down to where it was just me, and I couldn’t run it all by myself, so I had a lot of empty space. A lady came by one day. She said, ‘You have that big empty warehouse with nothing in it. All you’re doing is changing the tires over there. Why don’t you start a flea market?’”
Calvin pauses to explain, “I didn’t know how to run a flea market, and I told her so. I didn’t even go to garage sales. She says, ‘I’ll start it if you will just give me the building–I’ll start it, I’ll run it, and I’ll just rent the places out.’”
The flea market was an overnight success, and in a very short time, they had 50 vendors. “We were in the flea market business for five or six years, and we were doing great. That was about the time eBay came along, and people figured out that they could do better on eBay selling stuff than if they were bringing it out and selling it at the flea market.”
Calvin stumbled into the mattress business by providence, as he recalls it. One of his vendors in the waning flea market business sold bedroom suites, and a customer needed a mattress to go with his new suite. Calvin sent the man to a friend who owned a furniture company. After selling mattresses to several of Calvin’s flea market customers, the friend suggested that Calvin purchase a bunch of mattresses from him and sell them to make a small profit.
As vendors left the flea market for internet-based sales, Calvin filled his space with mattresses and furniture, and the garage that evolved into a flea market evolved again into a mattress and furniture store. Today, Calvin sells some of Middle Georgia’s best and most comfortable mattresses at an affordable price.
“The most interesting thing about our business is our location,” Calvin shares. “Because of our location, overhead is cheap. We own the building, so we don’t have to do anything to add to the product because overhead is cut down to the bare minimum. It’s just my wife and me working so there’s no employees, no payroll. So we can sell our mattresses, like the Canberra, which can sell for fifteen hundred dollars for a queen set in another store, and we can sell it for much, much less.”
He goes on to say, “People ask me sometimes how long their mattress will last. I tell them, if you’re paying $1500 for a mattress, that might be a good question. But when you’re paying $379 for a mattress—for the same matttress…What if it lasts three years? You’re paying two cents an hour for the time you’re sleeping on it. Do the math. If it starts not sleeping good, get rid of it. You could literally take the change out of your pocket every day, throw it into a dish, and at the end of that three years, come back and give me all that change and I’ll give you a brand new mattress for it. That’s how much it costs to sleep on the mattresses that we sell. And it’s the same quality mattress you can buy at any major brand store.”
Calvin suggests that people who are interested in owning their own businesses start with a skill or service they know something about. It’s also important to have a knowledgeable support network of others in your field who have experience that they are willing to share. Although Calvin doesn’t own a franchise, he suggests that franchises, while expensive, can offer good support in helping business owners figure out the path forward, with knowledgeable and experienced business owners who are willing to share their advice.
“In business you constantly second-guess yourself,” Calvin explains, “and you’re never going to say, okay, I know what I’m doing, this is going good. You reach that point and say, now what do I do to go to the next step? And sometimes you have to have someone there who’s already been there. Advice is almost invaluable.”
Calvin’s second bit of advice for entrepreneurs is that being knowledgeable and having a knowledgeable support system is important but you also must make sure that you have the capitalization there to sustain yourself while you’re building your business. The lack of capital destroys people who are not prepared to go into business for themselves. Even after a business becomes established, there is an ebb and flow of customers, and every business has low times. It’s critical to be financially prepared for the low times.
What is Calvin’s final piece of advice to budding business owners? “To have something to sell is also important. Don’t come to the table with just, I want to go into business for myself. What are you bringing to the table? Why would people want to buy your good or your service?”
“If you want to sell hamburgers, it’s not enough. What are you bringing to make your hamburger better than the other guy’s burger?” Calvin asks, and then continues: “I think that’s the selling part of your job. What makes your business unique?”
“That uniqueness is what’s going to sell your business,” he concludes.
As Calvin and Priscilla’s children have grown and left the home, their business has remained constant in their lives. “People have asked us about having an empty nest,” Calvin says about his grown children. “I miss them, I love to see them come back…I love my children, but I’m glad they’re out making a life for themselves.”
“But we love being around each other,” he continues, gesturing towards his wife. “Priscilla and I like doing things together. We went to the movies last night, we love going out to dinner together and with our friends.”
When Vineville Baptist Church opened Vineville North on Zebulon Road in North Macon back in 1998, the family moved to the new church; today, the church is called Northway and it is 20 years old. Calvin and Priscilla are active in the congregation, attending services and leading Sunday school classes.
For Calvin, his business and his church aren’t the only things keeping him rooted in the community. It’s his belief in the promise of Macon that keeps Calvin and his business in the community. “I’m still hopeful for Macon,” he says. “I see so many things that look like they might not be going in the right direction for Macon, but I’m still hopeful, and I still like this town.”