When you run a dry cleaning business, you live by the calendar. Come back Saturday. Pick up your shirts on Tuesday. Your dresses will be ready Friday.
So more than anyone else, Gary Rotundo knew it was time to retire.
Rotundo’s Laundry, steps from the curb on West Ferry near Grant Street, where customers have been dropping off and picking up for 72 years, is closing its doors by the end of the month.
"I got choked up when I told my employees,” said Rotundo, 77. “I told them I’d pay their week's vacation in advance. I mean it was time for at least me to enjoy my good years because at a certain age your time is numbered."
The news has been met with shock from Rotundo's loyal and varied customer base that frequented the neighborhood staple even if they lived nowhere near the neighborhood.
"You're not taking any more orders? Are you serious?" an incredulous Brenda Spates said when she was informed of the closing. "You don't have another shop? Nothing? I got my vacation clothes in here. I'm leaving on the 23rd."
Spates, who lives on the other side of Buffalo, visits the shop twice monthly."They do excellent work," she said. "They're always so well-mannered and they treat me like family. I'm upset, but that's OK."
Robert G. Wilmers, the late M&T Bank chairman and CEO, was also a regular customer. Wilmers stopped at the shop one day to give Rotundo a bottle of wine produced at the banker's winery in France. The special delivery followed a letter from Wilmers thanking Rotundo and his staff for returning $5 found in the pocket of his trousers at Rotundo's for cleaning.
“He told me I was a hard-working man," Rotundo said. "I saved it.”
One look inside Rotundo's and it's apparent Rotundo saves many items. There's a poster of smiling actor Joey Giambra, posted years ago on the front counter of the shop. The play advertisement from years ago peeks out from under layers of coming events displayed on the shop’s customer service counter.
“There’s everything that happened in Buffalo during the last 40 years. Remember the signature bridge? That’s down here, the green one,” Rotundo said of a long-ago Peace Bridge plan. "The calendars are over there,” he said, pointing to the door of a small office, and dozens of calendars tacked to each other like an accordion.
The business started in 1947 as a coin-operated launderette by Rotundo’s parents, Bennie and Felimina “Minnie” Rotundo, who invested in 15 Bendix washing machines and five dryers, Rotundo said. Minnie Rotundo would go on to run College Laundry Shoppe on Main Street in the University District. She was 101 when she died in September 2016.As a child, Rotundo lived with his parents and an older brother above the shop. He attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and SUNY Buffalo State College, and worked as a high school industrial arts teacher until he entered the family business in 1970. Rotundo, who was divorced in the early '70s, has two children and four grandchildren. He and his partner, Linda Wichtowski, have been together for 40 years.
The Rotundo family operates its dry-cleaning business at a time when dry-cleaning revenues nationwide are expected to drop from $9.1 billion in 2017 to $8.7 billion in 2022, according to IBISWorld, an international market research agency.
About 33,000 single-location laundry facilities and dry cleaning companies operate in the United States, according to Grand View Research, a marketing research company. Many, like Rotundo's, are smaller family-owned businesses.
"The industry overall is hurting a lot," said Jennifer Rockensuess, one of Rotundo’s two daughters. "We don't see our customers as often as we used to because there is a lot of wash and wear. There's a lot of dress-down days at work. It's just different."
In an evolving industry, Rotundo’s business has endured — without advertising, slogan or website.
“Our customers come to us from word of mouth. We may be in brochures for a fundraiser or donate to this auction, but we don’t advertise,” Rockensuess said. “We don’t take credit cards. We have no computer, no email.”
“Once you establish yourself with us — customers who come in here one or two times — we will remember your name,” said Cindy Benintende, a 47-year employee who was hired by Rotundo’s mother.
Fred Daniel, who emigrated from Liberia in 1992, credited Rotundo with helping establish his business, Freddy J’s Barbecue on Grant Street. Daniel met Rotundo 27 years ago when he was a student attending Buffalo State.“I was in the ROTC and I would bring my uniforms to Gary for cleaning,” said Daniel. “I was cheating, because I was supposed to do it myself, but the uniforms turned out great.”
“It’s a very emotional time for me because he helped get my business going. Gary told me the story about his grandparents coming to this country. He makes everyone feel welcome. When you walk into his shop, you feel like you are home.”
Rotundo and his staff have not issued a public announcement on the closing, nor are there any signs posted in the shop to alert the public. Instead, in true Rotundo fashion, the news is conveyed personally to each customer who walks into the shop to either retrieve or drop off garments.
As for his next chapter, Rotundo said he is looking forward to completing little projects he's always wanted to work on, like his vintage cars — a ’39 Chevy, ’57 Cadillac and ’66 Corvette — and his long-stored offshore race boat, Scaredy Cat.
And he also plans to spend time in Florida.
"I go to Sarasota, and everyone has gray hair. I have gray hair, too, but I don’t want to be with these people," he said. "I want to be with those kids over there, having fun and dancing. My mother used to say: ‘Don’t tell me how old I am because I don’t want to hear it.' ”
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