Terry Butler wiped sweat with the back of his forearm, and placed a load of “darks” into the machine’s tub.
“It has three tanks—dark, light, and an empty tank,” said Butler, owner of City Cleaners in Pontotoc, explaining that, after the chemical mixture washes the clothes, it flows through a filter, and returns to the empty tank for reuse.
“Dry-cleaning is really a misnomer,” Butler said, as his employees buzzed around the workroom, in sweltering heat, pressing, folding, and sorting clothes. The breathy shushing of steam cut through the heat. “The clothes do get wet, but to finish them, you have to dry them thoroughly, else the smell of the chemical cleaner lingers,” Butler said.
Across the room, Shay Cunningham placed clean shirts on a plastic, torso-shaped mannequin, like dressing a child. She pushed a button, and the machine pressed the garment into razor-clean perfection.
Emma Wade took great care in folding trousers, then placed them inside a horizontal press, lowered the lid, like a waffle iron, and steam billowed from the edges as the machine ironed the pants beautifully.
Tiny Oaks placed finished orders on hangars, attached paper tickets, and hung them on a circular rack that seemed to spin perpetually clockwise.
For 22 years, Butler has worked in the heat and steam, cleaning, fluff-and-folding, and taking out stains with an artist’s passion for precision and beauty.
“It’s becoming a lost art, and it’s definitely a learned skill,” said Butler, 63, a South Carolina native, who, in a previous life, was a banker and a traveling medical supplies salesman. He started looking for a more sedentary occupation so he could spend more time with his children, and opened his shop at 289 W. Oxford St., in 1997.
Banking and medical sales didn’t exactly prepare Butler for the cleaning business, but a lot of research and good, old-fashioned hard work helped him through.
“There were some bumps in the road, but we made it,” said Butler, explaining that, shortly after he opened, a thief broke in and stole a lot of clothes.
“I’m a man of my word, so I made it right with customers whose clothes were stolen, and we pressed on,” said Butler.
In some ways, Butler said, the dry-cleaning business reflects shifts in popular culture.
“Dress codes have changed a lot,” said Butler. “Professional attire is generally less formal than it used to be, so fewer men wear expensive, button-up shirts, or suits, and women’s professional clothing has changed as well.”
One, loyal customer who still places a high premium on looking sharp, is Dr. Mark Romano, a local chiropractor.
“I wear suits every day, and my appearance is very important to me,” said Romano, a customer of 15 years. “Terry understands that. His commitment to excellence, and the passion for what he does, is remarkable. I never worry about a thing. I just drop off my clothes, let him be the consummate professional he is, and he keeps me looking fantastic.”
Butler starts his day at 6 a.m. That’s when the hulking, 30-horse-power boiler—which, by the way, appears in the 2001 military prison movie, The Last Castle, starring Robert Redford—wakes up, and starts breathing steam into all the machines in the laundry room.
Very quickly, the room gets losing-weight hot.
Butler jumps in at one of the stations, often applying the proper cleaning solution to different stains—APOG, or all-purpose, paint, oil, and grease remover; semi-wet; amonia, for blood and body fluids; Super Tan, for deodorant stains. He keeps them in squirt bottles, like table condiments. All around him, employees sort dry-cleaning from regular laundry—it’s a 60 percent-to-40-percent ratio in his business, Butler said. They clean, fold, press, and tag, as the sweat drips and clock ticks. On an average day, they process about 250 pieces of clothing.
On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, get Butler your clothing by 8 a.m., and he can usually have it done same-day. Wednesdays, he collects door mats at local businesses and washes them.
“We try to add a personal touch to our work,” said Butler. “We put collar supports on shirts and blouses, insert collar stays to keep the shape and integrity of shirts, put shoulder guards on suits, that sort of thing. We’re happy to do choir robes, band uniforms, most anything except furs and leather. We can send off garments for preservation, like wedding dresses.”
Customer loyalty and good-will makes the heat and the long hours worth it, Butler said.
“I’ve got a few people who come in and say, ‘Man, Terry, you keep me looking great,’ and that really carries me along more than people know,” said Butler. “I’m grateful to all our customers, and it’s a privilege to be part of the business community in such a great town.”