Article, Photos and Video by Lynette Grodskiy
At the last stop of the B train sits Brighton Beach, a Brooklyn community known for its large Russian population. For 20 years, Family Cleaners, a dry cleaner, has been serving the community.
Over its life span, Family Cleaners has had several owners; the current one, Phillip Penn, bought it three years ago.
“I was living in Florida for some time, when I decided to head back to New York and open another dry cleaning store,” Penn recalled. Before his move, he had owned several dry cleaners on Long Island and in Manhattan. “I called my broker and she recommended this place to me. She said the owners did not realize how difficult running the business would be when they bought it and were in dire need to sell. So after seeing the place, I decided to give it a shot.”
But for the Italian native of the Bronx, owning a business in a predominantly Russian community has really put his people skills to the test. Many of his customers enter and without a simple greeting begin placing their laundry on the counter. They exchange a phone number for a receipt and leave.
“The basics are the same, no matter where I’ve been,” he said. “Human nature is all the same, it’s pretty much a people business.”
Recently, a man entered Family Cleaners. The pair quickly exchanged salutations, and the customer unloaded a pile of shirts onto the counter.
“What’s new?” Penn asked.
“Nothing,” the customer sternly replied.
Still attempting to stir up a conversation, Penn replied with a chuckle, “Well, nothing is also pretty good.” The man smiled and shook his head in agreement. The interaction ended there.
With two other dry cleaners in Brighton Beach to compete with, Penn hired Russian-speaking employees to facilitate communication with customers: a tailor, Gia Barnabishvili, and a counter assistant, Nino Guliashvili. But even they sometimes find it difficult to converse with the customers. “There are many older people,” Guliashvili said, “They don’t always understand what you’re saying.” For Guliashvili, Russian is her second language, which combined with her accent can sometimes cause misunderstandings.
Barnabishvili, a tailor for 40 years, said of the neighborhood: “Not all clients are happy. No matter how good you are, any little mistake can kill.” But, Barnabishvili said, if one out of 20 customers is unhappy, that is a record they can accept.
Even with the language barrier, business is on the rise, which appears to be a surprise for Penn. After the financial crisis of 2007-08, many dry cleaners took a hit as their customers found it more economical to spend quarters washing their own clothes and to buy items that were machine washable than to spend dollars at a dry cleaner.
“We are moving slowly, but more positive than negative which still boggles my mind,” he said.
Family Cleaners makes a profit with about 400 transactions a week, with dry cleaning, laundering shirts and tailoring the most in demand, in that order, he said. Other services include shoe shines, hat cleaning and laundering linens and tablecloths.
Penn replaces missing buttons by going to customers’ original clothing manufacturers and by personally delivering all clothes for free.
Dry cleaning fees range from a simple base price of $3.50 for shirts (most shirts are laundered, not dry cleaned, for about half that price) to $40 for comforters. On occasion, fancy dresses and gowns are brought in, and prices can run as high as $250 to $1,000.
Tailoring services include fixing hems, repairing zippers and taking in slacks and skirts, which can cost $10 to $80. In order to blend in with the surrounding Russian culture, Penn has even started altering hems on fur coats, which are more commonly known as shubas.
Aside from the change in ownership, Family Cleaners has not undergone many changes in the past 20 years, including any alterations to its vintage interior. Through a large front window, pedestrians can see Barnabishvili sitting at an all-metal cast Singer sewing machine. To his right is a counter with a computer that contains all 20 years’ worth of records for the shop. In the back room, machines older than the shop clean and press clothes. A large fan sits high above, rustling and rattling in an attempt to ventilate.
It is all quite different from the modern dry cleaner. And this all works just fine for Penn, who said drily: “Once you have cleaning fluid in your blood, you can’t get it out.”