This column was published May 28, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.
I took some clothes into a local dry-cleaning shop on April 20. A month and a week later, some of them remain, deep within the bowels of the establishment, in spaces trod only by those entrusted with the responsibility of laundering and pressing my long-sleeved Oxford button-downs (light starch) and my wife’s blue jeans (heavy starch).
It’s a Mom and Pop shop that has been operating in the same physical space for decades. My wife and I have been doing business with them since we got married in ’98. Her, long before that, as a college student.
Their problems have cascaded. Like many businesses in these early years of the post-Covid era, they have had trouble hiring – and then hanging onto – good help. The workforce issues were compounded by a death in the family, apparently out of state, which customers learned of by reading a handwritten note taped to the inside of the locked front door.
Since April 20, every time I have gone in on a hope and a prayer, I’ve waited patiently while Mom or Pop turn the place upside down in a futile search for our clothes. Over the month and a week, the duds have emerged in dribs and drabs. Jeans today, couple of shirts a couple of days later. Last week, I felt like I hit the jackpot when I emerged with a half-dozen shirts. Then I looked closer and realized one of them was not mine.
There’s always at least a half-dozen fellow customers in line, some not so patient. I can read a room. Even though the circumstances are extenuating, we’re all feeling the same pain. Many grumble, stomp out and promise never to return.
Mom and Pop have no website, no digital marketing platform. Our hard copy invoice arrives in the snail mail, once a month. At its performance zenith, this place was a well-oiled machine. Drop off your duds before 9 a.m. and get them back, clean and crisp the same day. Its old school quaintness was one of its charms. A throwback to a time when consumer trust was built through service and courtesy.
I can imagine Mom and Pop are as frustrated as their customers. Now, suddenly, they wake up in a world where no one wants the responsibility of laundering and pressing my long-sleeved Oxford button-downs. The sad truth is altering a business plan that has worked for decades may require skills – and time – that Mom and Pop simply do not have.
We have watched over the years as the neighborhood surrounding this business has evolved. Twelfth Street became one way heading south, a chain hotel with valet parking was erected right across the street. It was never a breeze to get in and out. You had to want to do business there. It is not built for a society that demands convenience.
I really hope Mom and Pop can see their way through this current workforce crisis and can get back to a successful space. Until or unless they do, we have reluctantly taken our business elsewhere. Despite the loyalty and patience, a month and a week seems a bit too long to wait for dry cleaning.
No doubt, this is a first world problem. I don’t have to have my shirts starched; I choose to. Here’s a novel concept. Maybe I could dust off the iron, try to avoid pinching my fingers while setting up the ironing board and press my own damn shirts.