Harvey Clarke, owner of City Laundry and Cleaners, chuckled as he remembered his first day at the business he’s run for the last 47 years.
“I was a car hop,” he said. “We didn’t really have much parking, so I would be out there getting clothes out of the cars or bring the clean ones out -- those cars coming over the hill there would almost take your doors off! When I moved inside, a couple of years later, out of the weather, that was a pretty big deal to me.”
Except for four years at the University of South Carolina, during which time he worked full time at Sunshine Cleaners in Columbia -- Clarke has worked at City Laundry and Cleaners since he was 12.
Ten area businessmen founded City Laundry in 1925. Clarke’s father bought it in the early 1930s and the business has been in the Clarke family ever since.
Originally located on Broad Street in the building now occupied by Blake and Ford, the laundry business moved a few years later to a slightly larger space up the street now occupied by Midlands Printing Company.
Clarke said he remembered a lot of people and activity in Camden’s small but bustling downtown area.
“Back in those days, everybody did their business downtown,” Clarke said. “On Saturday, we would have a line of people going around the corner -- we would have to bring them in 20 at a time. Next door at the Camden Chronicle, the paper boys would always be around -- they would be there with their bikes waiting to get their papers so they could do their delivery routes.”
City Laundry and Cleaners would remain on Broad Street until Clarke moved it to its present site at the corner of Rutledge and Lyttleton streets in 1975.
Clarke’s parents, A. Harvey “Cotton” Clarke and Lesta Clarke Hollis, also owned and operated Camden Ice and Coal, until Cotton Clarke’s death in 1946. Lesta sold Camden Ice and Coal and went into the laundry business full time, Clarke said.
“Back then, it was a man’s world,” Clarke said. “My mother had to make a choice, and she chose to stay in the laundry business. She was good -- she ran the business from 1946 until 1974, when she passed away. People over the years occasionally tried to take advantage of her, but she was smart, and she was a tough cookie.”
Once, during the early 1960s, a group of employees made what she considered unreasonable demands of her, Clarke said. She responded by firing all 31 of them and then promptly went to the Jackson High School graduation, stood by the stage, and asked each graduate as they exited if they wanted a job.
“She hired 31 new graduates, took them all to the laundry, and trained them all at the same time,” Clarke said. “They worked with us for many years. Some of them stayed there for 50 years.”
Under his mother’s leadership, the business employed some 60 people and served customers in several counties, Clarke said. During the early years, the business handled both private and commercial accounts, including hotels and motels, schools and hospitals, Clarke said.
Clarke would graduate from the University of South Carolina and return to help run the business in June 1968; he became sole owner after his mother passed away in 1974.
During the 1970s, City Laundry and Cleaners continued with residential and commercial work, including an interesting and lucrative sideline. The business subcontracted with a company in Orangeburg to wash, press, fade and package blue jeans, processing some 50,000 pairs of jeans a week, Clarke said. The business would take on a similar contract with a company in Lugoff as well.
In recent years, however, Clarke has phased out of commercial work, he said. With eight locations in five county seats, City Laundry and Cleaners maintains its presence in and serves smaller towns, he said.
Clarke’s employees are very knowledgeable and well trained; three, including himself, have been to virtually every seminar and school and have earned every certification offered in the laundry and dry cleaning field, he said.
The operation of the business has been fine-tuned over the years as well, he said.
“Everything is run on a very tight schedule because we guarantee you’ll get it back by the end of the day, and we do that in all of our locations,” he said.
Ultimately, however, the success of the business has always and will always depend on the quality of work and services rendered, Clarke said.
“A lot of things have changed over the years -- the market, the economy, the technology -- but ultimately, you still have to do good work and provide quality service -- that will never change,” Clarke said. “I think as far as that goes, we have everything just about as tight as we can get it.”