Anyone who spends decades in the dry cleaning business is sure to pick up some stories along the way.
Will Smith, who owns the Master Kleen on Roswell Road, says some of the most notable items he’s retrieved from customers’ pockets include a loaded pistol, $5,000 in cash and a lady’s high-heeled shoe.
“Always check your pockets,” he said. “You don’t want people to know too much about you, including your dry cleaner.”
Smith returns the items, of course, and that’s a fraction of the reason his franchise has stayed in business at the corner of Roswell and Mount Vernon roads since 1968.
That legacy ends on Aug. 29, when Smith hands back to his clients the last pieces of dry-cleaned clothing. In March, Sandy Springs City Council voted to authorize the use of eminent domain to acquire the property for the city’s city center project.
Smith’s father-in-law, Billy Dodd, started the business in 1968 and later opened another business in Cobb County on Powers Ferry Road. Smith left his banking career to run the Cobb business when it started in 1979, explaining that he wanted to become an entrepreneur rather than work for a big company.
“I helped build that plant,” he said, from pipe fitting to moving the machinery in. “I learned it literally from the ground up. I learned the nuts and bolts by building the equipment.”
But in the mid-90s, Cobb County took the property at the corner of Powers Ferry and Terrell Mill to widen the road.
Now, “it’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say,” Smith said.
He took over the Sandy Springs location 17 years ago when his father-in-law died. Smith formed a close bond with his employees, whom he calls “family,” and he worries that they will be out of jobs as he’s retiring and not moving the business to a new location.
“Lives are affected by this,” he said, “but hopefully it will open up other doors.”
He said all of his employees elected to stay until the end. Smith says that while the number of employees typically changes due to part-time help coming and going, about 13 people work there.
Smith says one employee has been there 30 years, and his manager has been there 18.
Some 250 high school students have come and gone from Master Kleen, too. “We train them and give them a taste of real life, preparing them for college and business, teaching them to deal with the public and interact with adults,” he said. “We have found kids that have been through here come back and thank us for their experience here.”
Marilyn Bryant, store manager for 18 years, points to a doorframe where high school employees etched their names.
Bryant said she’s disappointed the city is forcing the business to close, as she will be out of a job come Aug. 29 and isn’t quite old enough to retire. “Change can be good,” she said, but “Sandy Springs should consider the people affected while making changes.”
Now Smith is hoping his customers pick up their remaining clothes as the city wants the business out of the building by Sept. 1. The last day for cleaning clothes is Aug. 28, and customers will have through the Aug. 29 to pick up items.
“We’re doing what I call ‘dialing for dollars,’” said Smith, likening the process to collection calls he had to make during his banking days. “We’re calling customers to say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to be here so I urge you to pick up your clothes.’”
He says those customers are disappointed when they hear the news. “There have been tears,” he said, explaining that in many cases he’s served three generations of some families.
“The people here have been overwhelmingly wonderful,” Smith said. “We’ve developed friendships and remembrances that we will take with us forever. It’s been a pleasure serving the people of Sandy Springs.”