April 27, 2011

Butler's Cleaners closing after 40 years

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- A little girl's white christening outfit and bonnet hung Monday amid the wedding dresses, checkered hunting jackets, men's shirts and formal wear at Butler's Cleaners on Waterville Road.

click image to enlarge

Bob Jervais, owner of Butler's Cleaners and Laundromat in Skowhegan is closing its doors Saturday at 2 p.m. after 40 years in business.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

By Saturday, the gowns, dresses and shirts will all be gone.

After 40 years in business, Butler's is closing up shop. Doors close at the dry cleaning business and busy coin-operated laundry at 2 p.m. Saturday.

"Being the kind of business we are, dry cleaning is kind of a luxury," owner Bob Gervais said Monday. "Three things happened -- if people could take care of it themselves at home, they did; those that used us for convenience, dress shirts, mamma suddenly ironed the shirts; and the advent of 'who dresses up for work anymore?'

"I wore a suit and tie for 25 years, and I haven't for 10 or more. This is the way I dress, just like everybody else."

The closing of Butler's leaves one coin-operated laundry and two dry cleaners, both of which send much of the work to Waterville.

When he closes on Saturday, eight employees will lose their jobs. At it's peak in 2006, Butler's employed 22 people, moving 4,000 pounds of commercial laundry a day.

Some of the employees have worked there for almost 20 years.

"This is the only job I've ever had," said Barbara York, 44, of Skowhegan. "I've worked here for 17 years; I know how to dry clean; I know how to do commercial laundry. I'll have to go on unemployment -- I'm even willing to wash bathrooms. I'm going to be looking everywhere I can to find a job, but with the economy, I don't think I'm going to find one."

Gervais said he and his former wife, Jean, bought the business from Dennis and Mary Butler in August 1999. The Butlers opened the original business in 1971.

The business already was expanding to include extensive dry cleaning routes and commercial laundry, with a business radius of 80 miles of Skowhegan, Gervais said.

He said energy costs, propane to run the dry cleaning and diesel fuel for the trucks, also contributed to the demise of the business.

"This place basically runs on propane. We use upwards of 1,000 gallons a week," he said. "When I started here it was 51 cents; now it's two dollars and change."

Gervais, who grew up in Portland, said he invested money in rehabilitating the buildings and equipment in 2003. Then the economy went sour, leaving him with more money invested than he had coming in. He said the dry cleaning business nationwide is down 50 percent over the last decade as fuel costs rise and jobs disappear.

"This industry generally runs about a five-year cycle; you'll see a dip, and then it comes back up," he said. "This wasn't a dip. This was a fall off the cliff, and it just didn't come back. This one has been catastrophic, and those that had debt ... you get to the point where you can't meet your obligations and you've got a problem.

"We were hemorrhaging money. We were losing money at a pretty good clip starting two years ago."

So far, Gervais, 57, said, he has no buyers for the business. He said he plans to sell real estate until something else comes along.

"There's going to be a big hole that somebody's going to have to fill, and I don't know who's going to do it because nobody, at the moment, is set up like we were to do it," he said. "Skowhegan people are wonderful people; I feel bad for the customers and for the help. I wish everyone well."

Doug Harlow -- 474-9534

dharlow@centralmaine.com

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