Order of the Phoenix
Even after a century, Phoenix Cleaners continues to do business the old-fashioned way.
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This is not the only old-time Phoenix practice. Much of the work is still done by hand, using presses and some equipment that is half a century old. Some new equipment has been added over the years, and the cleaning operation has long since moved away from naptha, the volatile liquid that caused the early fires.
And cleaning has changed significantly since Singleterry, in the early days, “started cleaning clothes in buckets, as far back as anybody can remember,” Todd says.
“There are two types of cleaners,” Gary Robinson once told a reporter, “chain cleaners and old fuddy-duddies like me. I refuse to change much. It’s all done like it was 50 years ago.”
Phoenix relocated to East 18th Street in 1932, taking over space that had been the Nadel Maple Ridge Grocery. The Singleterrys lived in an apartment above the cleaners. The apartment is still there and still occupied but no longer by family members.
Singleterry designed and built the art deco building next door, where the cleaning business is now located. He moved the entire cleaning operation there after another fire, in the rear of the old building. The original Phoenix has housed antique dealers for years.
Richard Singleterry died in 1960. Wife Thelma inherited the property and the business, but her brother, Ralph, and his wife, Eleanor, took over the cleaning operation. In 1973, Ralph and Eleanor opened a new business, Brookside Cleaners, and Gary took over Phoenix. He and his wife, Debbie, had moved into a house across 18th Street, where they still live.
Gary ran the cleaners until 1983, when Thelma died and he bought the buildings and business from her estate.
Todd “sort of grew up around it,” he says, and was there almost every day, although “I didn’t have a hand in anything except the cookie jar and gumball machine.”
He went to work full time in 2001, the year Ralph died, after graduating from Oklahoma State University.
Most of the 15 Phoenix employees have been there for years. Gary’s sister, Susan, worked there for 23 years until retiring in 2004.
Gary says clothing styles have changed over the years. Phoenix sees less formal wear and more casual wear now, but lawyers, doctors and businessmen still regularly drop off suits and dress shirts. The traffic starts before 6:30 a.m. daily — the sign says Phoenix doesn’t open until 6:30, but Todd is always there before 6, just as his dad was for years.
And it still gets formal dresses and fancy gowns and an array of other items. Many people bring tough cleaning projects to Phoenix, knowing they will get good attention. Phoenix also cleans rugs, household items and, Todd says, “some weird textile things.”
As for the future, Todd and his wife, Allison (who also works at Phoenix), have two sons.
“They love hanging out down here,” Todd says. “It’s probably just a matter of time before they start.”