A waterless laundromat irrigates its own customer service legend

Steve Gamlin’s go-to, neighborhood family-run laundromat in Salem, N.H., had a water supply catastrophe that closed them down. They were temporarily out of business — and hurting.

He didn’t have the heart to go to another one across the street. And what happened next so profoundly impressed and affected Gamlin’s positive outlook as an author and speaker, it is a lesson to others even today.

Gamlin is the luckiest man in the world when it comes to customer service (remember last week’s column? — yeah, that Steve Gamlin).

The Good News Guy continues his diversion away from our emotional air travel journeys to balance the other side of his brain.

“I recently drove past the laundromat that I used long ago,” begins Gamlin. “The experience reminded me of the time I showed up at the Sunshine Laundry Center with overflowing baskets of laundry only to find a sign on the door saying they were closed due to a water main break affecting only their side of the street.”

We have all had our struggling laundromat days when the privilege of having one’s own appliances one day seemed elusive. And while living alone in my youth, and hoarding quarters for the machines, I would have made some readers shudder at my inability to separate colors and whites (or is it hot and cold?). But these days, my whites are whiter and my brights are brighter!

I could have used an online guide on how to use a laundromat then. Today, there are 35,000 coin laundries in the United States grossing $5 billion annually, according to the Coin Laundry Association. One source estimates the breakeven point for a personal washer/dryer to pay for itself is 600 loads — but that’s not attributing any value to the convenience. Coin laundry is here to stay, with the incorporation of credit card and smartphone readers just around the corner.

But back to the modest Sunshine Laundry Center, where this aptly named small-town cleaner of clothing was indeed a source of family sunshine for those on tight budgets, who committed hours of their time, and not much else to do while waiting. Despite having every right to dwell on her own misfortune of a lost water supply affecting her livelihood, the owner instead was apologizing to everyone for not being available, and thanking them for their business.

“While everyone else was exiting to go to another laundromat across the street, for some unexpected reason, I found myself … not leaving,” said Gamlin. “I just figured I would come back tomorrow. No big deal.”

“And when I did come back, with still no water, the owner saw me with the same
overflowing baskets, and asked me why I didn’t go across the street with everyone else,” Gamlin went on.

“I replied, ‘I like it here. I like you. I like the way you run the business. I like your prices. And I feel like I have a friend here,’” Gamlin added. “Then she went to the back and came out with a saved coffee can of quarters to give me, saying, ‘all your laundry is on me today.’”

I am verklempt (look it up).

That totaled about $20. But while the gesture may have been more significant than the dollar amount, 15 years ago it was still much more than a wash for a financially struggling patron — nor was it a paltry amount for a business proprietor with zero water and income. Gamlin felt valued as a customer — and a person — just for being loyal.

The bigger lesson is that effective and equitable consumerism goes both ways. We need to remember the value of courtesy, along with the good deeds of those who value us, by complimenting with the same vigor as complaining. And let’s be honest — how many of us really do that?

“I still think about that experience and smile if I drive through the area,” concludes Gamlin.

And perhaps impersonal corporate conglomerates (as well as any other businesses, for that matter) can pause to consider such a real-life Mayberry reminder to not forget their capitalistic roots.

Even the biggest of the big guys on some level began long ago as a single person in a small shop, giving someone their own version of a can of quarters.

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