|Danny and Tony Policelli|
The door swung open on a rainy Monday morning, and Danny Policelli yelled from behind the counter, “Good morning, Ms. Johnson!” The Policelli family has been greeting their regular customers by name at Diplomat Cleaners for nearly five decades.
Another customer came in shaking his head in disbelief. “I’m bummed. I’m bummed,” he said. He had just learned that the store will be closing after reading a notice taped to the door. It was the topic of conversation that morning.
Fred and Erika Policelli opened Diplomat Cleaners in the Free State Mall in 1970. Along with Giant and Good Year, Diplomat Cleaners is one of three original tenants to still be in business at the shopping center.
The store was originally located close to where Ross is located today, but the store was moved to the current location about 25 years ago.
Fred and Erika’s sons began working full time at the cleaners in the 1980s. Tony and Danny Policelli still run the business today.
“Our whole family was in the dry-cleaning business at one time,” explained Tony. “My grandmother had a shop in D.C. My uncle had a shop in Georgetown, and my aunt had a shop in Virginia.”
The brothers take pride in the fact that they have several customers who have been patronizing their store for more than thirty years, and they have loyal customers whose parents were also customers. “There’s one lady who’s been coming here since 1975,” remarked Tony. “This is the only cleaners she ever come to.”
“We’re like bartenders,” Tony continued. “We know ninety percent of our customers by name. We know what they do for a living. We know their kids, and we know their stories.”
The dry-cleaning industry has faced a growing number of challenges over the last two decades. Smoking bans in bars and restaurant, telecommuting, and casual office dress codes have reduced the need for dry-cleaning services. The use of wrinkle-free and other low-maintenance fabrics have made it easier to care for garments at home.
Dry-cleaning chains have become more popular in the last twenty years. The chains have lower expenses than the family owned businesses because they can buy supplies in bulk, and the chains can offer their services at lower prices because of their ability to process higher volumes in their larger stores.
The Prince George’s County Council passed a bill in 2002 that was intended to prevent large dry-cleaning businesses from driving out the smaller mom-and-pop shops. The bill was proposed after Dry Clean Depot planned a new store for the Bowie Market Place - not far from where So’s Cleaners had been operating for years. The bill was not passed in time to save So’s, but it did restrict the size of new dry-cleaners in some of the smaller shopping centers from being larger than 3,000 square feet. That restriction kept larger dry-cleaners from opening in the Free State Shopping Center for a decade.
In 2012, the Prince George’s County Council amended the 2002 bill to change the size limit to 6,000 square feet. That paved the way for Zips to move into a 4,000 square foot location in the Free State Shopping Center – almost three times the size of the Diplomat Cleaners space.
According to Tony Policelli, the rent for their store has almost tripled since the shopping center was purchased by Federal Realty in 2007. The lease is up at the end of the month, and the landlord made a take-it-or-leave-it offer that made continuing at the Free State Shopping Center unrealistic.
Moving their business to another location would require a large investment that the family is not willing to make.
Since the closing was announced, Tony and Danny have been reminiscing about their time at Diplomat Cleaners.
They thought about the many items that they’ve found in the pockets over the years. They found lots of money, lots of receipts, wedding rings, and love letters.
They thought about the time they found a customer’s engagement ring. She thought that she lost the ring down the drain, and she was relieved when they called. The customer had flowers and balloons sent to the shop the next day.
One of the brothers’ favorite memories is providing laundry services to the Washington Capitals when the team practiced at the Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton. They would launder team jerseys as well as the players’ personal clothes. Danny played hockey in high school, and he enjoyed having the opportunity to talk to Rod Langway, Kevin Hatcher and some of the other Capitals players.
Former Washington Bullets center Manute Bol was a regular customer at Diplomat Cleaners during the time that he lived in Bowie. “He would duck to get in through the doorway, and then he would sit on the counter,” Tony recalled. “He didn’t need to bend down or anything. He just sat on the counter like it was a chair.” According to Tony, the 7-foot-7-inch Bol had pants with a 48-inch inseam. “He had the longest pair of pants I’ve ever seen!”
Diplomat Cleaners will be accepting clothes for cleaning through Saturday, November 10th. The following Saturday, November 17th will be the store’s last day in operation.