Dirty dealings alleged in local business

There is a point when business competition crosses a line and becomes ethically questionable.

John Hoff

Could anything be so basic, so necessary to college students as a place to do laundry? So why is somebody trying to put Gopher Cleaners and Launderers out of business?

Doing your own laundry is part of being an independent adult. Thus, it’s common to joke about students who leave home for college, but then return to their parents’ house lugging overloaded baskets of dirty clothing. This kind of joke carries an implication the student hasn’t really grown up, left home and become a full-fledged adult.

And yet laundry options around the University can be limited, inconvenient and expensive. I’ve helped manage two apartment buildings, and both my landlords loved to run their fingers through bags of shiny quarters gathered from the coin boxes of washers and dryers, chuckling like leprechauns with a pot of treasure. Many housing options don’t offer washers and dryers, not even expensive ones, so some students come to depend on a place like Gopher, conveniently located on Fourth Street Southeast.

I’ve been a customer there for a long time. I’m not an easy customer. Once, both change machines malfunctioned late at night, and I ended up scrawling an angry little note for the business owner (signed, of course, with my contact info) before hauling my wet, half-finished laundry to a place in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. It only took one dark night of doing laundry in Frogtown to make me decide I would get rolls of quarters at my bank, if it came down to it, and stick with Gopher.

One day, I was bringing some clothing to be dry-cleaned at Gopher, the shirt and pants I call my “good set of clothes,” which works for most formal appearances, whether it is the first day of being a teaching assistant at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication or an appearance in Swift County District Court. For no particular reason, I began thanking the lady behind the desk for doing such a fantastic job the last time she cleaned and starched my clothing. It had been a lucky day, I said, and this was now my lucky set of clothes.

We ended up having several conversations over the next few months, with the lady, Debbie Allen, dropping dark hints that somebody was trying to drive her establishment out of business. She would never say who it was, exactly. Instead, she would incline her head in a particular direction, inviting me to draw my own conclusions based on my knowledge of the neighborhood.

Over the holiday break, I saw police cars outside Allen’s business. The place had been robbed at gunpoint. Allen sees herself as somebody who is holding firm and not caving in to criminal activity, but she told me in an e-mail, “Come May we will no longer occupy the space.” Allen says she is being “attacked with money.”

This is the same kind of thing that happened to Purple Onion Café. It fills me with the same feelings of helpless rage, like when a beautiful old tree is cut down for somebody’s idea of progress. This little laundry has a cool collegiate funkiness you can’t get from a larger, more impersonal laundry, and its humble charms grew on me.

I used to do laundry at a place called Tubs in Dinkytown, but it closed and now sits, empty, near Kafé 421. Forced to find another laundry, I discovered Gopher Cleaners and Launderers. There were always plenty of leftover newspapers and magazines to read, and I could obtain economical snacks by walking a few yards to a grocery store called Santana’s.

The rear gravel parking behind Gopher reminds me of images of craters on other planets. The parking lot is surrounded by weeds, which sometimes grow as tall as my waist, but I see the potential for a neighborhood flower garden.

Now, according to Allen, “The current owner is working with an out-of-state individual that insists he is going to build condos on this corner.” Allen thinks this is a bad idea, saying the area is already full of condos, and why not purchase nearby buildings which are vacant?

I am all for capitalism and progress and, furthermore, I welcome shiny new buildings, even at the expense of interesting weeds. I’m sorry my friend, Debbie Allen, is suffering. Healthy business competition can be personally rough. And yet, there also comes a point when spirited business competition crosses a line and becomes ethically questionable.

I have a smaller, more personal question: where the heck will I do my laundry? Where will other students, like the hot young women who hang around Gopher Cleaners and Launderers,

wash and dry their pretty clothes? (Yes, the customers are part of the charm, too, and those fascinating homeless folks staked

out, nearby, at the I-35 on- and off-ramps.) Where will students get formal clothing dry-cleaned before their big class presentations?

It seems like students, who drive the economy in the neighborhoods around the University, are getting shafted in business decisions which impact our lives. The best example of this happened when Purple Onion Café was elbowed out of their old location by Potbelly Sandwich Works and Qdoba Mexican Grill.

Now, I see the same kind of rough dealings directed at Gopher Cleaners and Launderers. If it comes down to it, what can be done except to cry out, in newsprint, about shady dealings? As a last desperate tactic, somebody might urge boycotts of businesses whose actions make our college neighborhoods worse instead of better.

Capitalism shouldn’t smell like an old pile of unwashed laundry.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]