GREAT BARRINGTON — With the closing of the Clean All Over Laundromat in February, Great Barrington has gone four months without a place where members of the public can wash their clothes, forcing travel to nearby towns.
A new laundromat is planned, but for now, people without washing machines in their homes must haul their dirty clothes out of town — to a small laundromat in Stockbridge, or others in Lenox and Lee.
People without cars must rely on friends or neighbors to help.
“This is something that I think about every day,” said Michelle Kaplan, a Great Barrington resident and longtime user of the now-shuttered laundromat in the Big Y plaza south of the town center.
“It’s a major inconvenience for me because I have to alter my whole day around to do laundry now,” she said.
Still, Kaplan counts herself as among the lucky ones. “I’m thinking about people who don’t have a car. Our public transportation just isn’t so great here, either,” she said.
Friends have offered Kaplan use of their washing machines, but she doesn’t feel comfortable accepting.
Officials with Big Y Foods have not responded to questions from The Eagle about what the company plans to do with the space formerly occupied by Clean All Over. Its owner, Karen Faul of Sheffield, posted notices in February telling customers she’d lost her lease.
At the time, the closing caught people off guard.
Steven Coe of Great Barrington told a reporter for The Eagle he wasn’t happy. “It’s our only place to go and do our laundry,” he said. “Big Y absolutely has every right to do this, but they didn’t let the community know, didn’t let anybody know this is what’s going on or even what’s going on.”
Heather Haim, owner of laundromats in Lenox and Lee, says she inquired about reopening a laundromat at the old Great Barrington location. Haim operates the Lenox Wash & Dry Laundromat on Pittsfield Road in Lenox and the Lee Wash & Dry on Park Street in Lee.
According to Haim, Big Y told her the company wasn’t interested in a new laundromat and was instead looking for a retail operation.
Four months later, the space remains empty.
Since Kaplan works full-time, she says she is sometimes too tired to drive more to do her laundry. It becomes a time-consuming weekend task, and at times a wait for machines, including at the Village Laundromat in Stockbridge.
“There are only two large machines there and there are always people waiting. It’s an all-day thing,” she said of the Stockbridge business.
In Lenox and Lee, people say they’ve seen an increase in foot traffic at laundromats in those towns.
Pam Rabbu, who lives in Lee, said she now tries to come between 7 and 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. to avoid waiting for available washers and dryers.
With the summer, Rabbu expects the situation will get worse. Summer camp counselors, campers, wedding guests, and Appalachian Trail hikers are all known to visit area laundromats.
In addition to being a necessity, Kaplan believes an invaluable community space was lost with the closing of Clean All Over. “I was going once a week, and there was this sense of community,” she said. “Sometimes we’d sit outside and just chat while we waited for our clothes.”
In particular, she kept running into a neighbor, Fran O’Neil, 88, also known as Nana Fran. “We had this weird psychic thing that we always ended up doing laundry at the same day and time, so we’d sit and talk,” Kaplan said.
O’Neil had a washing machine at her home in Great Barrington until 2018, when it was knocked out of commission by local flooding.
Looking on the bright side, she says she decided the situation offered good reason for her to get out of her house more often.
“I said ‘Oh, that gives me a good excuse to remind elder people you should try to get out of your own house for a couple of hours and still converse with people,’” she said in an interview at her home. “You got to keep that human touch!”
She sees laundromats as an essential place to engage with different people. “We have to learn how to cultivate contention, taking offense. People need to practice that too.’’
When the laundromat closed, she admits she was devastated. O’Neil moved to Berkshire County more than 50 years ago, but found only recently that the former Great Barrington laundromat was a great place to meet and visit with her neighbors.
Since she doesn’t drive, O’Neil now relies on friends and family to drive her to clean her clothes once a week. They tried to talk her into replacing her appliances. “‘You need to stay off the street,’” she recalls them saying.
She defended the virtues of going to a laundromat. “You have that fellowship. And Jesus said to the Holy Spirit that people have to embrace one another at every opportunity. That’s what the Bible says.”
O’Neil isn’t alone in seeing a laundromat as more than rows of washers and dryers, plus counters for folding.
Kaplan says she’s been a student of laundromats all over the world, particularly those that embrace the local community. “People open laundromats with cafés or bookstores. I guess there are endless possibilities,” she said.
Kaplan also views laundromats as spaces in which to be creative. She took many photos of the former Great Barrington location. “I loved sitting there and watching people,” she said. “One day, I just wanted to bring my Polaroid camera and take this photo. I’m really glad I did.”
Because it’s gone, she means.
Haim, meantime, has been working to turn her laundromat in Lenox into a gallery for Community Access to the Arts. The Great Barrington organization celebrates the artistic ability of people with disabilities.
“I’ve purchased some art from Community Access to the Arts, and I’m going to be hanging it as a gallery and educational element for our laundromat. I think everybody will really enjoy it,” she said.
Customers aren’t the only ones who see a business void in Great Barrington.
Paula Kohler of Sandisfield is said to be preparing to open a new laundromat in Great Barrington. The timeline for opening is between late 2022 or early 2023, said Allen Harris, a consultant working with Kohler.