Jack Knox: Don't miss laundromats? Wait until you need one

After five years of trucking dirty duds off-island, they’re celebrating Salt Spring’s new laundromat today.

Now, if only someone could find a home for one in downtown Victoria.

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Same goes for other Canadian communities as the number of coin-operated laundries shrinks.

“There was a point around the early 2000s when there were 15 or 16 in Victoria,” says Nancy Pearson. Now we’re down to half a dozen or so.

Pearson, a Victoria writer, has been researching Canada’s shifting laundry landscape for what she hopes will be a book. Right now, she’s buoyed by what’s happening on Salt Spring, where the non-profit Wagon Wheel Housing Society will hold an open house today at the first public laundry the island has seen since 2016. If that doesn’t seem like a big deal, try breaking out grandma’s washboard or taking a ferry every time you need clean underwear.

What really has Pearson’s attention, though, is the impending loss of downtown Victoria’s last coin-op. LaundroLounge, which sits where a 12-storey condo tower is to be built at Cook and Yates, has been unable to find a new home. With three similar operations in central Victoria having closed recently, what are those who depend on them supposed to do? Low-income people are particularly vulnerable, as the buildings they live in are less likely to include in-house facilities.

The downtown case just highlights a broader issue. “The bigger story is the role of ­laundromats and how important that is,” Pearson says.

This isn’t something that people with easy access to washers and dryers think about. That included Pearson until one night, a few years ago, when her own dryer crapped out. She ended up in Squeaky’s on Shelbourne, looking around and asking herself: “I wonder what’s happening with laundromats?” Were they going the way of the video store?

And that led her to create The Great Canadian ­Laundromat Adventure page on Facebook, and to conduct three years of research and road trips that have taken her as far as ­Newfoundland. “I think I’ve driven something like 15,000 kilometres to explore ­laundromats.”

She thought she would be documenting a dying industry, but came away encouraged by the innovation she saw. Plenty of laundries were reinventing themselves by adding revenue streams. One in Toronto doubled as an ice-cream shop. In Dryden, Ont., anglers can buy fishing tackle while washing their waders. In Vancouver, a high-tech, coinless operation tells your phone when your load is almost done, ties prices to water and energy use, and allows customers to check the availability of machines online. “It’s very cool.”

But then came COVID, and Pearson’s optimism faded. Many laundries lost big commercial customers, accelerating the trend that has seen coin-ops, for a variety of reasons, close, leaving the everyday customers who feed coins in the machines with few options.

“The laundromat in the Cook Street Village is now a fast-food joint,” lamented a Times Colonist letter to the editor in May. “With the recent loss of Prestine Laundry, James Bay has none — it used to have two.”

In Quadra Village, there’s a picture-window art gallery in what was the Sparkle Bright Launderette (though the retro business sign featuring a girl in a yellow dress remains). The laundromat at the Victoria Car Wash on Gorge went dormant when more waiting-room space was needed for social-distancing car-wash customers (though the laundry will reopen when the rules allow).

Squeaky’s owner Frank Zheng says business dropped significantly in the first few months of the pandemic, but then recovered. Squeaky’s lost almost all the work it did for caterers (without weddings and other events, there are no tablecloths, napkins and seat covers to ­launder), but saw a big jump from professionals such as ­massage therapists and ­physicians.

As for the shrinking number of laundromats (in a Times Colonist op-ed in May, Pearson cited a cross-Canada drop from 1,784 coin-operated laundries and dry cleaners in 2014 to 1,205 in 2019) Zheng, who also has a property-management company, pointed to a rise in the prevalence of apartments with in-suite laundry, and the advent of services that pick up and drop off washing.

Also, rising lease and labour costs have easily outstripped the prices laundromats charge coin-op customers. At $3.50 to wash a load and $3 to dry it, that end of the business isn’t where the money is for an operation like Squeaky’s. At the same time, Zheng points out, $6.50 can be a lot of money for someone on low income.

Kerry Naber, who has owned LaundroLounge for the past decade, worries about where her regulars — from restaurants to people without a roof — will go if her business, which is busy, can’t find a new home. She has been looking for a couple of years, without luck. There’s not much available with outdoor parking and, in any case, the cost of infrastructure — ­plumbing, gas, venting — is daunting.

So is the idea of having nowhere to do your laundry.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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