Sonny Yi’s eyes crinkle as he smiles under his mask for the young man who just walked into Fortune Cleaners at 2751 21st St. at Bryant.
Yi hands over a bulky item of clothing, and the man removes the garment cover to reveal a trendy tan coat. They discuss the coat’s quality and agree: Its best days are ahead.
“It was sheepskin,” Yi tells me later. A tailor by trade, he and his wife, Yong, bought Fortune Cleaners 33 years ago after moving from their hometown of Seoul, South Korea. Yi trained in factories there, and he still provides alteration services in addition to dry cleaning and laundry.
Since the beginning, Fortune Cleaners has just been the two of them with occasional help from their son. “[We] do everything; the cleaning, the alterations,” he said. “I do leather, suede, wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses. The people, they never complain.”
He thinks back to the guy with the sheepskin jacket. “He was pleased. That’s how we get regular customers,” said Yi.
“It’s kinda easy; well, easy for me,” he said about tailoring. The business side is another story. “We’ve had problems with the pandemic. It is so, so, so slow,” he said.
Things improved earlier, but omicron has brought another round of uncertainty.
Fortune Cleaners never closed during the pandemic, but with many customers still working from home or having moved away, the Yis shortened their opening hours from 11 hours a day to six.
Supplies, like hangers, became hard to come by. Prices for items like hangers went “up, up, up,” said Yi, slicing his fingers through the air for emphasis. And the prices have stayed there.
Before the pandemic, Yi said they paid around $36 for a box of hangers. Now, they run about $80 a box — if they arrive. Shipping containers may never come, or you don’t know when, he explained.
“But everybody waits,” said Yi, and he sees other cleaners experiencing the same struggles.
They’ve also worked in the community long enough to watch its demographics change. Where they previously served whole families and long-termers, they are now seeing more singles and temporary customers.
“Young customers are moving here, the older ones are moving out. Some pass away,” said Yi.
“[The young customers] have computer jobs. They dress nice, but they work at home. They move often,” he added.
Anyway, he reminds me, they’ve been here for 33 years. “We’ve survived earthquakes,” he joked.
“We just pray, that’s it,” he said. “I hope 2022 will be better.”