It’s the end of an era for a nearly four-decades-old family-owned dry cleaners in Donelson that is set to close its doors next month.
The owner-operators of Elm Hill Cleaners say the physical demands of the job and the effects of the pandemic helped them decide it’s time to retire.
Elm Hill Cleaners owners Lance and Julie Douglas have operated the family business on Donelson Pike for nearly 39 years, doing most of the intense manual labor themselves.
“We are retiring. We’re tired, we’re just tired. It is hard work being in the dry cleaning business. It’s very, very labor intensive and very hot in the summertime,” said Julie Douglas, 62.
“I’ve got so many memories of this place. It’s sad that it’s come to this, but you know, we just can’t take it anymore. We just can’t physically do it anymore,” said Lance Douglas, 63. “There’s quite a few customers I’m going to miss. It’s been a good ride, the cleaning business was good to us. We’ve seen a lot in our 39 years here. I’m just ready to not have to close my business to take a vacation. Every day is going to be a vacation, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
It’s been a labor of love with each piece of clothing they’ve cleaned. They started thinking about retirement last year and feel now is the right time to hang it up also because business hasn’t been the same since the pandemic erupted in 2020.
“The pandemic was the death knell for a lot of us. That’s what sent us over the edge. And the workforce went to hell after the pandemic, and it’s just a completely different animal now,” said Lance Douglas.
According to the National Cleaners Association, 1 in 6 dry cleaners have had to close their doors or file bankruptcy since the pandemic started. The dry cleaning industry was hit especially hard because it relies heavily on the success of the business sector, whose workers have primarily stayed home for the past two years and are just now slowly returning to the office.
Throughout the pandemic, Elm Hill Cleaners barely stayed afloat by serving front-line workers, a large part of its customer base, the Douglases said proudly. The economic blow to their business may have been softened because nurses and doctors, law enforcement officers and nearby airport workers continued to work and support them during the economic shutdown, the couple said.
Still, their overall business suffered about a 40% loss, causing the Douglases to furlough their employees; during better times, the cleaner employed up to seven workers. As a result, they cut back production to three days a week and no longer provide same-day dry cleaning service. However, a small washer by industrial standards, located at the back of the laundry plant, runs nonstop from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Pointing to a pile of clothes in the store, Lance Douglas said, “We didn’t do near the amount of laundry we do now. That’s what used to go downtown (to a dry cleaning subcontractor), 150 shirts a day and 30 pairs of pants. Now we’re doing all that by hand here.”
“It’s been a struggle. We dumped all of our savings back into the business the last two years,” said Julie Douglas.
With physical ailments and other dry cleaners they used as subcontractors going out of business, the Douglases have been overwhelmed with work that has proved to be too much to handle. They admit that the years have worn out their bodies. She has arthritis in her hands, and he gets around with the aid of a cane because he needs a knee replacement.
“We’re just getting inundated with everyone else’s business coming to us. What we’re doing now I used to send to another dry cleaner as subcontract work. I can’t handle it. Just me and Julie and we’re doing all the work by hand. It’s taken its toll. And she doesn’t have any hands, and I don’t have any legs. Between us we make a pretty good person, one solid employee,” jokes Lance Douglas, making light of their health conditions.
The Douglases live in Rockvale, outside of Murfreesboro, but in 1983 the Knoxville newlyweds moved to Donelson and bought the dry cleaning business, long before Sonic, which was across the two-lane street, relocated down the road on what is now a busy four-lane thoroughfare with a turn lane running through the heart of the community’s airport hotel district.
Calling it their retirement plan, they own the 19,800-square-foot building known as Donelson Pike Shopping Center, which includes three storefronts. A discount market and wireless cellular store neighbor each side of the dry cleaners. While nothing is official, the market’s tenant is most likely to take over the space.
You could say the dry cleaning business was their destiny. Julie Douglas’ father and siblings have all owned dry cleaners, and some still operate locations in Hendersonville and Gallatin.
Elm Hill Cleaners is a family affair for the Douglases, but they say neither of their two adult children, who sat in playpens at the dry cleaner as infants, want to take over the family business.
While they dedicated their work life to the business, at times it seemed their plan was tested. When he was only 2 years old, their son was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. In 2005, a brain hemorrhage laid Lance Douglas at Vanderbilt for three weeks. Leaning heavily on prayer and their Catholic faith, both recovered successfully.
The Douglases made the agonizing decision to close the dry cleaners with “much sadness,” but what excites them about retirement is the time they plan on spending with their two grandchildren.
Their tear-filled eyes turned to bright smiles when the conversation turned to talk about their grandchildren, 16- and 10-year-old boys.
The younger of the two has mapped out the first leg of the Douglases’ retirement travels because he is a star pitcher on a Little League travel team and will play in the Greater Midwest Baseball World Series on July 4 in St. Louis.
“You don’t get a lot of vacations working six days a week like we did at the beginning. You just don’t get a lot of time off, but we’re going to do that now. Now we’re going to go and watch our grandson pitch and play ball. It’s going to be fun. I’m going to do some stuff I haven’t been able to do like travel a little bit. I’m really looking forward to that,” said Julie Douglas.
The Douglases have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of kind words from customers since they announced their retirement and closure of Elm Hill Cleaners.
“Everybody is just loving on us. We are blessed,” Julie Douglas said.
Much like the years of hard work, the memories are many for them.
“I remember when we opened this place. I was 23 years old,” said Lance Douglas. “People would come in and say ‘You’re too young to own a business’ and I’d say ‘I didn’t know there was an age limit,’ and some of those customers still come in.”
One thing the Douglases are most proud of is their longtime affiliation with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Since the early 1990s, Elm Hill Cleaners has cleaned and pressed the uniforms for every graduating class at the THP Trooper Cadet Training Academy on Stewarts Ferry Drive in Donelson.
“I know state troopers all over the state. They’re like my children. For at least 25 years, that’s one of the things that I am most proud of is our reputation, our rapport with the Tennessee Highway Patrol,” said Lance Douglas.
They’ve had doctors and lawyers, business professionals and Metro police officers walk through their doors, but Lance Douglas recalled a couple of his more well-known customers, such as Dave and Mary Allman. Dave Allman was a captain with the Metro police department and the uncle to Gregg and Duane of the Allman Brothers Band.
He said he would get a good laugh every time he heard how Mary Allman referred to Gregg Allman as “that damn hippie freak-a-zoid. We’ve known some people through the years,” said Lance Douglas.
On April 23, the Douglases will accept the last articles of clothing dropped off for cleaning at Elm Hill Cleaners and then close the doors for good May 19, just two months shy of 39 years in business in the same location.
“I’ve got a handful of customers that have been with me since the very beginning. That’s a long damn time to stick with one dry cleaner. I saw infants that were brought into this world and are my customers, and now their children are my customers. We’re talking more than three generations. That’s another thing we are most proud of is our longevity,” said Lance Douglas.
And as they settle into their retirement, don’t plan on seeing the Douglases in starched and pressed clothing.
“No, no,” Lance Douglas said with a chuckle. “It’s the wrinkled look for us. We gave the iron to our daughter years ago. No, no iron and no ironing board.”