Eisenhower was president, and the first baby-boomers had
just started school. Men still wore suits and hats, while
most women wore dresses and stayed home. But change was in
the air. The Cold War sent a nuclear chill around the world.
In the newly sprouting suburbs, supermarkets began to
replace neighborhood grocery stores. Television and
advertising entered their golden ages. Marilyn Monroe
appeared nude in the first issue of Playboy. Teens sporting
duck-tails and poodle cuts would soon be gyrating to the
rebellious beat of rock ‘n’ roll. A truck driver named Elvis
turned 18, Martin Luther King, 24. An average family income
was about $3,000. A modern house went for $14,000. A Philco
TV cost $200. And for 50 cents you could get a jacket
dry-cleaned at a new shop on the corner of Centre and Green
streets called Classic Cleaners.
Icons like Martin, Marilyn and Elvis now belong to the ages-but Classic Cleaners, started by Al Pavone in October, 1953, survives as the grand dame of Centre Street, outlasting most of its dozen or more competitors to celebrate its 50th anniversary this month.
“When I started out, Centre Street was a much more diverse shopping district,” said Al Pavone, a 1948 graduate of Wentworth Institute who like many other World War II veterans was just beginning a family and career. “It was a very busy street, with clothing stores, baby shops, shoe stores, jewelers, pharmacies-basically, everything residents needed. “And of course, there were lots of other cleaners nearby. When I bought the old Cleaning by Adele business some people thought I was crazy…”
“And some of us still think that,” joked his son, Mike Pavone, who took over the shop in the early 1980s after his dad retired. “Hey, don’t interrupt me. I don’t want to be late for my tee-off time,” Al said with a wink as they both laughed. “Now where was I?” “The golf course,” his son rejoined.
The two laughed again, displaying the personal rapport that attracts loyal customers with the grace of Hope and Crosby. “We have a lot of fun here,” Debbie Carmichael, an employee at Classic Cleaners for 24 years, admitted. “We laugh every day. Al and Mike are great to work for.”
“They sure are,” replied her sister, Patty, who has worked there for 20 years. “Mike is like a big brother to us.” As she walked out the door, Jamaica Plain resident Phyllis Isberg noted “There’s another cleaner close to my house, but I use Classic because of the great service and friendly atmosphere. I can see why they’ve been in business for 50 years. Congratulations.”
But Al Pavone pointed out it took a lot more than a couple of laughs to stay in business half a century. Long hours and hard work were, and are, the norm. “When I bought the place it was like an empty barn inside,” he said. “There were no clothes on the racks and not many customers. But one day a salesman walked in and put a mannequin wearing a wedding dress in the window. When people realized we were good enough to clean something like that, business picked up. But it still took a long time to really build up the business.”
The clientele included some real characters, Al Pavone recalled, like the mobsters who dropped off clothes with guns in the pockets.
On a more serious note, Mike Pavone, who began working Saturdays at the store when he was 11, said, “You know, we still have some customers from the 1950s. We appreciate their trust for so long.”
Mike Pavone went on to say his business, like most others’, has dipped since the Sept. 11 attacks two years ago. “But I’m optimistic. I don’t fault anyone, we just try to do the best work we can.” That includes investing something back into the community. In addition to sponsoring Regan League baseball teams for years, Classic donates 50 cents from each order to the Jimmy Fund or AIDS Action Committee, with $1,500 already collected for each.
And as part of their 50th celebration, for 50 weeks they are having a drawing for $50 worth of dry cleaning. Classic Cleaners offers a full line of services, including dry cleaning, shoe repair, tailoring, leather cleaning and regular laundering. “Our motto is: If you can wear it or tear it, we can clean it or repair it,” Al Pavone said.
Asked what the best thing has been about 50 years of business, Al’s countenance transformed from a sidekick to a father. “Working with Mike. It’s great to see your son take over the business.” “Dad taught me a lot,” Mike Pavone replied as he slung an arm over his father’s shoulder. “I appreciate his confidence in me.”
For more information call Mike, Debbie or Patty at 524-9852. Just don’t ask for Al, he’s in Florida now, on the golf course.
Written by John Swan. Reprinted with permission from the October 10, 2003 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.