What Running a Laundromat Has Taught Me
How an early business venture turned into a lesson on perspective, people, and the power of the physical.
I never dreamed of owning a laundromat.
You know, it’s not really up there with becoming an astronaut or a teacher or a doctor. In fact, I had dreams of starting all kinds of different businesses. My (then fiancé) Shane and I went through a restaurant phase when we lived in Asheville, convinced that Greenville needed a Biscuit Head (this was years ago before Greenville actually had a Biscuit Head). We also thought about opening a Groucho’s. But then I decided I just couldn’t do the food business for the very thoughtful reason that I can’t stand it when my hair smells like food.
At one point, we also actually considered a port-a-john business. It sounds crazy, but we were already flipping houses, so it seemed like an easy next step … until I really thought about it. We probably had at least 100 business ideas, but I knew that if we threw enough shit up against the wall, something would stick.
When Mr. Jack Mitchell handed me the keys to my first laundromat, it stuck.
I paid for it from the money I made selling a house I had flipped in Columbia. I did that on the side while working in insurance in Asheville — talk about a job I loathed. I was anxious to get out, and this laundromat was part of my ticket out.
The laundromat didn’t come completely out of left field. My dad had owned laundromats for years. As a kid I remember counting quarters for Daddy. We would go on vacation and pay for food and souvenirs with quarters. We were probably the only family who rolled up at the gas station with a bag of quarters too, but hey, that builds character right? So Jack had rented space from my dad for years for his own laundromat. But then my dad noticed that Jack was showing signs of Alzheimer’s — forgetting keys and money, forgetting to check on the machines. So I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to buy the business from Jack.
Twelve years (and two laundromats) later, here I am. I’m certainly no expert at it, but I at least feel like I have better handle on it now than when I started.
Even at the beginning, though, I was in love with the laundromat business, as crazy as it sounds.
Not necessarily for the actual laundromat, but for everything that came with it. I remember leaving Asheville to drive down the mountain to Williamston multiple times a week, looking forward to time spent with my daddy as I learned the machines while hearing late-night stories about the customers. They would share stories themselves too. I would learn about their families and jobs, their problems and their hopes. We were all there at midnight swapping jokes and sharing memories. I’d eventually finish the maintenance, and a customer would walk me out to my car as I headed back to Asheville to get up for work in the morning.
Elaine, originally from Barbados, has always been one of my favorite people I’ve met through the laundromat. She’s fostered more than 20 children in her lifetime, many of them special needs. Oftentimes I’ll watch her wheel in Tucker, her son, who’s a paraplegic. She’ll then bring in a special chair for him and move him from the rolling bed to the chair. After he is situated, she’ll go back to her car to retrieve another child. I can’t imagine how tired her back must be, but she never complains. Taking in these kids and raising them is her life’s work, and she takes great pride in that. I’ve known her for so long now that kids I saw coming in earlier on are now doctors, lawyers, and nurse anesthetists. Elaine raises her kids to work hard.
And that is what I love about the laundromat — good, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people who show their love for each other through the garments that they clean and fold.
There are no pretenses or complications; just each person preparing his or her family for the upcoming week. A woman washing bed linens for her bedridden mother. A man washing his uniforms for work. A family folding blankets in preparation of a cold night. Hands of young, old, middle-aged, black, white, Hispanic, Asian … everyone comes together to prepare as best as they can for the week ahead.
Today’s world can feel — and be — so complicated. On a daily basis we’re dealing with the latest argument in politics, people dying in shootings, a pandemic that never seems like it’s going to end, and trying to figure out how we’re going to afford the next biggest thing. Sometimes when things seem so confusing, basic physical acts like doing laundry feel comforting. When life gets messy, pulling a warm towel out of the dryer, holding it to my nose, and then matching the four corners together is manageable. And it’s beautiful.