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We'll Never Get Rich Taking In Each Other's Laundry

With Lauren riding shotgun, I manhandled a U-Haul over the mountain from San Diego, up the California coast line, and finally to Sonoma county. Our truck was stuffed with coin-op washing machines which would be added to the mix at our laundromat, a business my husband and I got into when I was too young to know any better.

Gary found a great deal on those washers, and while he toiled up north, I volunteered to do the driving. We had to pull Lauren out of school for a day to accommodate our 11-hour drive and joked that a truant officer would be on our tail the whole way.

Mark Twain famously wrote, “we’ll never get rich taking in each other’s laundry.” That sentiment echoed in my head sometimes while I folded sheets decades ago at that coin-op. Back then, my husband and I also owned a thriving commercial laundry service. Every day we processed sheets and towels for the small hotels Sonoma is famous for. These inns were too small to be of consequence to major laundry processors but too big to do all that laundry themselves.

Bingo, the perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs like us.

That laundry service meant we could maximize return on the pricey equipment at our laundromat and ensured that our coin-op was always staffed. So, while our employees chatted and washed towels, they could also help a customer who didn’t have a clue how to use a front loader.

Laundromats, at least in northern California, are an odd mix. They’re mom-and-pop-meets-high-finance, because while the vend price still comes in twenty-five cent increments, local governments charge incomprehensible permit fees to install washers. In our area, each hook-up costs around $20K, so before a would-be laundromat owner has installed his first machine, he’s going to pony up about a half million in fees.

Gary and I piled our pennies and managed to buy a fixer-upper laundromat, and the day after we made the purchase, our business was literally under water. Two inches of sludge oozed from a leak in the back of the store til the sidewalk in front was flooded.

Bit by bit, we fixed it up. We bought new equipment, painted the walls, built massive folding tables, and hired employees.

One day, we caught those employees in a spectacular fraud and fired all but one of them at the same time. All of them – even our delivery driver and janitor – had teamed up with a famously wealthy local innkeeper who made a side deal to have his laundry done on the cheap.

Going over security footage one evening, my husband saw our teenage employee come into the store at two in the morning. Minutes later, she was joined by a team of others who stuffed every washer full. Mountains of sheets were processed with efficiency a German engineer could only dream about.

At eight o’clock, the teenager left for school, but the others clocked in, right on time to start their shifts. They used the first half hour of that shift to load up cars and deliver clean folded linens to their conspirator.

Watching that footage, I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In fact, I had to view it over and over before I got it into my head that the employees I loved were stealing. That afternoon, we fired them all, and that evening, my husband and I washed, dried and folded enough sheets to furnish charming inns all over the county.

I sweated the polish right off of my fingernails.

Eventually, we hired new employees and the pain of betrayal abated.

This weekend, Lauren and I watched new equipment replace our old. Gary will stay until the equipment is installed and kink-free, and then he’ll check our rental property further to the north.

None of us got a hot dog this Labor Day weekend. But heading south, with Lauren riding shotgun once again, I "relished" the odd but deliberate life that is so uniquely mine.

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