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Automatic laundries clean up, go creative

Laundromats around the US are cleaning up their acts. Those drab and dreary washrooms of yesteryear are being phased out. The emphasis in today's coin laundries is on creativity -- with unique enticements to attract customers.

One of the most unusual concepts is the Laundry-Galleria in Boston, Mass., a combination laundry and art gallery. While doing the weekly wash, patrons can view exhibits of abstract and representational art, sculpture, collage, papier mache, as well as a special showing of works done by customers themselves.

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Owner Lillian Bloom is a new breed of female coin-op proprietor who manages and maintains most of the business herself. When her doctorate fellowship at Boston University ran out, she needed to earn a living. With the backing of friends, the successful cleaning and culture idea was born.

For nature lovers, the Chester Park Laundromat in Duluth, Minn. offers an aviary, complete with 20 finches, silverbills, nesting birds, a frog and some chameleons, flitting and sitting on swings, perches and small trees. Owner Phil Lundberg plans to add another section for larger birds to cover a 40- foot wall above a bank of washers. There is also a glassed-in ant farm on another wall.

Reaction from customers and their children, Mr. Lundberg says, has been positive.

The most beautiful laundromat in America may well be Christa's Coin-Op in San Diego, Calif., so eye-catching that drivers passing by will slow down or stop to get a better look. The two-story building has white plaster walls, a Spanish tile roof and tall arched windows on all sides. The interior has a high ceiling which, combined with the windows, produces a cathedral-like atmosphere. Decorated in white, brick red and orange, there is a colorful tile mosaic depicting women washing clothes in a stream. THe landscaped court has yucca plants, trees, walkways and benches.

Even the equipment at christa's has distinctive details, such as backgammon boards and checkerboards painted on top of washer lids. Owner Norman Starr has provided customers with a book shelf of paperback selections which can be taken outside and read in the sunshine. Not surprisingly, people come from all over the area to do their wash.

Other attractions and gimmicks include a 6-foot TV screen at The Cleaning Machine in Des Moines, Iowa. Various laundromats throughout the country have aquariums, pinball machines, special play areas for children, comfortable lounges, stereo music, and individual coin-operated TV sets so patrons can watch a favorite soap opera without someone changing channels.

"Most of the creative approaches in this business today are being done by young people," says Ben Russell, editor of American Coin-op, the industry's trade publication. "Today's laundromat owners depend completely on coin-ops for their living. Years back, it was different; a laundromat was often just an investments, operated by others."

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As the post-war baby boon produces more "mini-households," more people require laundry facilities than ever before. However, the rapid growth of laundromats was curtailed by the energy crunch in 1974, when coin-ops were required to have gas permits to operate their equipment. Today, most gas and electrical restrictions have been lifted.

However, double-digit inflation and spiraling interest rates are the problems today. "A coin-op owner," Mr. Russells says, "is hit on all sides by constantly-escalating costs of equipment, utilities, water and sewerage."

The average laundromat today has 35 to 50 washers and about 20 dryers. Customers pay an average 60 cents for a load of wash; the dryer charge is 25 cents for 10 minutes.

Start-up costs have skyrocketed. Capital needed to open a laundromat ranges from a very modest $40,000 up to $100,000 in areas o the Midwest and California.

"That's why the creative factor is so important these days -- not just to attract the customer but to keep that customer coming back regularly," notes Mr. Russell. "The successful laundromat must be clean, safe, efficient -- and fun! Today's customers wants more then just a place to wash clothes."

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