Classic Royko: Once upon a time, there was a woman who ran a dry cleaners store

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Sewing machine. Jonas Kakaroto | Pexels

Editor’s note: Mike Royko was at his best when he told stories of the city about ordinary people. This column ran in the Chicago Daily News in the middle 1960s.

There used to be a lady who ran a dry cleaning and tailoring store on California Avenue. In a good year, she’d make $2,000 after paying her rent.

It was a very small store. In the back was an apartment. There were a few taverns, a grocery, a barber shop, a candy store and some light industry nearby.


In the window of the store were artificial flowers, which the lady made by hand and sold for a buck or two for a large bunch.

There was a rack of clothes which were for sale. The sign said “unclaimed” but in truth she bought them used at the Salvation Army outlet store. Her customers knew this but the subterfuge gave a little dignity to buying used clothes.

The store hours were 9 a.m. to six p.m. but that didn’t mean anything. If somebody needed their clothes at eight o’clock on a Saturday night, they just rapped on the door and she opened the place.

The lady didn’t do her own cleaning. Clothes were sent to a large plant and returned in a few days. There was no one-day or eight-hour service. And the prices probably ran a nickel or a dime higher on a garment than in bigger places.

Her tailoring work was expert. Besides mending rips and cigaret burns, she’d make a communion dress or a graduation suit.

At times the shabby store was so crowded it appeared prosperous. The old ladies and old men in the neighborhood found it a nice place to sit and talk.

The lady provided chairs for them, coffee, and, if somebody would walk down the block to buy a quart of beer, she’d provide the glasses.

The neighborhood could be described as run-down. An occasional punk would barge into one of the taverns or restaurants in the block, wave a pistol and scoop $50 or $100 out of the register. It never happened in the cleaning store because even a novice robber could see that he wouldn’t profit much by his daring.

When the lady’s grown-up children visited her, they’d often find her still sewing late at night and ask what the heck she was working for at that hour.

Her explanation was usually that Mrs. So-and-So needed the dress by tomorrow for her daughter’s wedding, or a funeral or a graduation. It was quite important that it be finished.

When the children asked why the heck she didn’t sell the place for the little it was worth and come live with one of them, her lips would tighten. They didn’t seem to understand, she would say, that this was her business. She supported herself and it was an important part of the community.

If one of them retorted that it was a rather small business and not worth all the work, she wold answer that it had put food in their mouths, shelter over their heads and clothes on their backs, hadn’t it?

But the people of the neighborhood, the children would argue, and those that hung around her store, were nothing but characters, outright freaks. She would laugh, agree and say they were far more interesting than some of the dull friends her children had.

Once or twice a week, after the store closed, she’d walk a few doors over to a tavern. It was a friendly place and the customers were seldom rowdy. People knew each other by their first names. She didn’t know it, but for the price of a highball the lady got what some people spend thousands of dollars for at private country clubs.

The cleaning shop is gone now. In its place is a hamburger joint where teenagers gather to listen to the juke box.

The people who used to take their clothes there now take them to another place that has opened up nearby. It is big and has a lot of glass and plastic trim. The cleaning is done right there. You can get eight-hour service and one-day service.

It opens and closes on a rigid schedule and is very efficient. The man behind the counter pushes a button and the rack moves automatically so that you get your clothes several seconds faster than the lady could get them for you, thumbing through by hand.

The price of a garment is a nickel or a dime cheaper, which is one of the benefits of such efficiency.

The man behind the counter asks you your name even if you have been there 50 or 100 times. Maybe he is the owner or the manager or a clerk. You don’t care what he is and he doesn’t care who or what you are.

The new place didn’t drive the lady out of business, because she died before it opened. She kept her store open long after she found that she had cancer — long after it became painful.

But if she hadn’t died, they would have opened up and driven her out because they are efficient, modern and cheaper. Their business is cleaning clothes — not gossiping and letting characters sit around drinking coffee and beer. She got away in time.

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