“Whatever they had left over wasn’t enough to give us a big boost,” Gary, 61, said of the extra customers as he swept the tile floor of his gutted storefront on East Glebe Road last month. “It’s just an example of how far down business has gotten. When people aren’t going out to work, they’re not bringing clothes in.”
Two metal racks holding laundered shirts and pants were still by the window, where a paper sign summed up their fate: “Notice: Store closing.”
Nearly two years after the pandemic changed daily life, the divergent economic consequences for small businesses in Northern Virginia and beyond are familiar: There are the mom-and-pops that managed to hobble through and those that couldn’t make it. The entrepreneurs who found a way to pivot — to contactless “ghost kitchens” or online-only yoga — and the family-run outfits still praying for some kind of return to normal.
Auburn Cleaners was firmly in the latter camp until the omicron variant of the coronavirus and its staggering number of cases delayed a return to the office. The blazers and blouses would stay inside closets a few months longer, and the Whitesides decided that it was: They would leave the storefront where they and a handful of employees had cleaned, pressed and packed since the couple purchased it in the early 1990s.
It was another dry cleaner lost to the coronavirus — the third casualty on a stretch of about eight blocks and a much larger omen for an industry that may never recover. Some trade groups expect that, by December, 30 percent of dry-cleaning businesses operating before the pandemic will have closed.
In the DC region and other large metro areas, dry cleaning has long been seen a vehicle to the middle class for immigrant families, many of them Korean Americans who settled here in the 1970s through 1990s, industry experts say. There were low barriers for entry and limited need for language skills, not to mention a community of other store owners often willing to help with loans and training.
But even before the pandemic, many of those independent stores were bracing for change: their US-born children were choosing not to take over the family business, opting instead for white-collar fields. Even in buttoned-up Washington, offices were loosening their norms for professional attire and lessening the need for professional cleaning.
“At one point, you had casual Friday, and then you went to casual every day,” said Mary Scalco, the chief executive of the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, a trade group based in Prince George’s County. “Many of them repositioned themselves as convenience stores and took on a wider range of clothes — it’s your golf shirts, polos, khakis, not just your ties and suits.”
For the Whitesides, though, it was just a matter of keeping up with the multiple generations of clients that passed through the store — everyone from first responders and hotel workers to a US congressman whom Gary declined to name. (“He has been in the news a little bit and coming under fire, and I don’t want people to know he’s living in this area,” he said.)
Chong Whitesides, who immigrated grown to the United States from Korea as a teenager, had up working in her family’s dry-cleaning stores and stuck around the business while Gary worked in telecommunications at a US Army base in Maryland.
After they moved to Northern Virginia in the early 1990s, she decided to start her own business. The couple the Auburn Cleaners store on East Glebe purchased, a neighborhood mainstay on a block full of longtime establishments.
It soon became a family affair: Their son Jeremy, now a computer programmer, worked his way there through college at George Mason University. When Gary was laid off from his IT job during the Great Recession, he joined her — a ploy for them to spend more time together.
But the workweeks were 70 hours. Save for Sundays and a smattering of holidays, one of them was nearly always at the store — tagging clothes, checking for stains, pre-cleaning, spotting and pressing, then sorting and packing.
There would be seasonal rhythms: Spring meant prom dresses and wedding gowns; fall was for coats and sweaters. But “other than the very general seasonal things,” he said, “it’s a crapshoot from one month to the next.”
The number of dry cleaners has remained relatively flat in Alexandria for the first half of the pandemic, according to the city’s economic development data, dropping from 54 in January 2019 to 50 at the same time last year. But trade groups warn that the worst is yet to come.
Peter Blake, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Cleaners, which represents 350 storefronts in the District, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, said that the number of closed outlets — about 10 to 15 percent of the industry — could double by the end of this year.
He said his group has also encouraged its members to diversify their business, dipping into wash-and-fold and delivery services that might appeal to customers who have few shirts that need to be pressed as they started working from home.
But as the original coronavirus gave way to the delta variant, which gave way to omicron, the outlook for the Whitesides was grim.
They shut down their store for a few weeks and then opened back up — with slightly limited hours — to serve the steady trickle of first responders and other front-line workers who came in through the summer of 2020. But business that year never reached more than a quarter of what it had been before the pandemic.
“There were all these different dicts — who can stay open and who can close — that was all undetermined for a while,” he said. “At one point it didn’t really matter, because no one was coming out anyway.”
Auburn Cleaners received two rounds of loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, which “were enough to keep us going for a while,” Gary said. (Some other business have relied on a special tax credit that was phased out in a federal infrastructure package last year, though industry groups are pushing to have it extended through March.)
The Whitesides went through their savings. They crunched the numbers. They had some customers hanging on — and still do, even as they’ve shifted some operations out of a storefront entirely.
But the rest of their clientele, he fears, will simply never return.