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Laundry Wars in W. Hollywood : A Trendy Town Is Taken to Cleaners

Times Staff Writer

In West Hollywood, a city of high standards, people take pride in their social conscience, political acuity and civic involvement. They also have no excuse for wearing dirty clothes.

Already well known for its scores of upscale restaurants, trend-setting interior design houses and celebrity-studded night spots, the city also has become a breeding ground for purveyors of a slightly lesser cachet--dry cleaners.

At least 33 dry cleaning establishments have clustered into West Hollywood’s 1.9 square miles, all trying to woo an affluent clientele with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of soiled linens, stained blouses and wrinkled trousers. There are three establishments on one city block and 18 along Santa Monica Boulevard, the city’s commercial hub.

“I don’t know how West Hollywood compares to other communities, but I think we’re becoming a dry-cleaning Mecca,” said William Fulton, a city planning commissioner who lives within a hanger’s toss of at least a half-dozen dry cleaners.

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“We’ve reached dry-cleaning critical mass,” said Peter Weinberger, another planning commissioner.

Price-Cutting Wars Noticed

Both Fulton and Weinberger live near Santa Monica Boulevard, where the concentration of cleaners is so dense and the competition so keen that laundry wars have broken out. Some of the new cleaners are charging as little as $1 to clean each item of clothing, a tactic that unnerves dry-cleaning veterans like E. Tomar Fishman.

Fishman has run Peter’s Cleaners, on Santa Monica Boulevard near Sweetzer Avenue, ever since Peter the tailor sold him the store on Sept. 9, 1953. “The way these new guys undercharge, they make it difficult for everybody,” Fishman complained. “I don’t mind competition, but those prices are crazy.”

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The newer stores have a lot of ground to make up. At Santa Monica and Sweetzer stands Hollyway Cleaners, a huge operation that does more over-the-counter trade each week than any other single dry cleaner in the nation, according to dry-cleaning industry surveys.

“Hollyway is a legend in the business,” said George Laumann, director of the California Fabric Care Institute.

According to Scott Chortkoff, whose family ran Hollyway until it was sold to new owners two years ago, the store has brought in as much as $50,000 a week from its counter operation and has employed a staff of 85. The Chortkoff brothers, Milton and Burton (Scott’s father), built a dry-cleaning juggernaut, with three tailor bays complete with dressing rooms and mirrors, a film-processing counter and special machines to clean intricate leathers and dresses with beads.

On favored customers’ birthdays, the Chortkoff brothers gave away cakes; on Mother’s Day, women were presented with flowers. Until the early 1980s, the Chortkoffs printed “Hollywords,” a free newspaper crammed with neighborhood notes and helpful cleaning tips.

Cartoon Is an Institution

And then there is Mendel, a cartoon of a mustachioed tailor that became so familiar on Hollyway’s billboards and advertising signs that many West Hollywood residents still refer to the store as “Mendel’s.”

“I wondered at one point whether we should make Mendel part of the city’s seal,” Weinberger said.

With so many dry-cleaning stores springing up, it was only a matter of time before some residents began to assign social status to some cleaners. “Mendel’s is for struggling actors and people in a hurry,” Weinberger said. “Then you have Peter’s, which is a little more upscale. And then there’s one place on Melrose that’s so exclusive that when I walked in there one day wearing jeans, I got nasty looks.”

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The dry-cleaning old-timers, like Fishman, understand why so many people are eager to enter the trade. “It’s not a business where you need a lot of capital to start out,” he said. “You always have had a lot of immigrants who use it to get their feet wet in American business.”

Fishman was quietly running his own store when he first noticed the invasion in the 1970s. “It was all those little shopping centers,” he said. “Every one that opened up had a new dry cleaner.”

Dense Population

City officials believe it took more than the simple rise of the corner shopping center to bring the onslaught of dry cleaners.

“This city has the densest population of any metropolitan area west of the Mississippi River,” said Mark Winogrond, city community development director. “Added to that you have the people in the hills who need dry cleaners and all the people who work in West Hollywood by day and drive through here day and night.”

At Care Cleaners, on Santa Monica near Flores Avenue, counterman Joe Jacob has watched his customers carefully and has come up with his own conclusions.

“This is not polyester city,” he said. “These are affluent, single people who can afford nice fabrics and don’t want to mess with washing them. We don’t get many customers in here with $12 K-Mart pants. It’s more the people who just bought $119 linen pants and want to be sure they are treated properly.”

One West Hollywood planning official concurred. “This is a town which wouldn’t bat an eyelash if you’re wearing jeans full of holes,” he said. “But don’t get caught in a polyester suit.”

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One of the Best Dressed

Valsin Marmillion, a West Hollywood-based public relations man, epitomizes the city’s clothes-conscious populace. Named two years ago as one of the region’s best-dressed executives by the Los Angeles Business Journal, Marmillion drops by his neighborhood dry cleaner once a week.

“I guess I spend $40 to $50 a month on dry cleaning,” he said. “I don’t think that’s excessive.” A few moments later, he upped the figure to $50 to $60 a month.

A detail man when it comes to his appearance, Marmillion has found that the concentration of dry cleaners works in his favor.

“Because they’re so close to each other, I was able to bounce from cleaner to cleaner until I found the right one,” he said. “When one of them began losing my buttons, I just moved on to the next one. It’s awkward going to a major business meeting with your shirt collar flying in the air.”

Unlike Marmillion, most West Hollywood residents who have become aware of the invasion of dry cleaners are not certain how they should react, or indeed whether they should react at all. “This is not exactly something we have been worrying about,” Winogrond said. “Should we?”

Restrictions Considered

Teresa Garay worries. A public service broadcast standards representative for KCOP-TV and the co-chairwoman of the West Hollywood General Plan Advisory Committee, Garay is concerned about what the dry cleaners might do to the city’s image.

“It says nothing for our city that we’re filled with cleaners,” she said, noting that some residents have begun talking about using the city’s zoning laws to restrict the number of dry cleaners. “It implies a lack of vitality or creativity. It’s wrong for a city so artistic and vital to be dotted with dry cleaners.”

Paul Nowparvan, too, shudders when he hears that a new dry cleaner is moving in. An emigre from Israel and Iran, he opened City Express Cleaners just eight months ago. “Now I hear there are at least three more opening up,” he sighed.

But he does not think any limits will be necessary on dry cleaners. “After all, it’s a very hard business,” he said. “If you give a shirt away by mistake you have to pay for it. You can’t lose buttons. Sooner or later, there will be too many stores for the people. Then some stores will close. Just as long as it isn’t mine.”


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