Gipson Cleaners is closing
Gipson Cleaners, a Philadelphia institution for nearly a century, is still thriving, but it’s time to retire, Regina Gipson Hicks says.
For Hicks, it’s a bittersweet time. She and her husband, Danny, announced earlier this month they will be closing for good on Feb. 11.
They have already stopped taking clothes for cleaning and are only open for pick up.
The end of an era, Gipson has served customers for 83 years and there is a tinge of sadness being felt across town, many have said.
“We have been in it a long time, and we just made a decision,” Hicks said. “I hurt my back the first of December, and I realized I couldn’t stay up here all of the time.
“We have a good business. That’s not why we are closing. We may have a buyer who may bring it back.”
There haven’t been that many changes in the dry cleaning business over the years.
“People still like their things cleaned. They like their shirts and jeans starched,” she said.
Customers also need clothes mended and buttons sewn on shirts or jackets.
Saying goodbye to her customers hasn’t been easy.
“I have seen a lot of the same people for a long time,” Hicks said. “People have been so nice and so supportive. I had one customer crying yesterday. I said I have cried some, but she was my first customer to cry.”
Hicks has been around the business all of her life, but she didn’t start her career at the cleaners.
“I graduated from college with a degree in microbiology and chemistry,” she said. “I was working at the hospital.”
Her mother was ready to sell in the late 1970s, and that’s when she and Danny, who kept a career in banking, decided to buy the business.
It had all begun after Willie Jim Gipson married Mary Elizabeth Cook on Christmas Day 1938.
Jim Gipson worked for Doc Adcock’s Pan American Oil and Gas Distribution Co. who owned City Cleaners.
When Adcock could not pay Jim Gipson in the late 1930s, he gave him the dry cleaning business in lieu of the debt — or sold it to him at a greatly reduced price, or so the story goes.
Then on a Sunday afternoon in 1946 lightning struck the cleaners at 417 Church Avenue downtown during a severe storm and it burned, but Gipson endured.
On Dec. 13, 1949, Jim Gipson was bird hunting, his favorite pastime, and suffered a fatal heart attack.
He was with his bird dog in the woods along with Junior Luke of Union when he was stricken.
Junior left him propped up against a tree and went to town to get help. “Unfortunately, help did not get there soon enough and daddy succumbed to the heart attack,” Regina told the Democrat in a 2017 interview.
Ever the strong lady, Mary Gipson took over running the cleaners even though she didn’t have any formal training in the laundry business.
She had worked at the W.A. Houston Department Store and later at Monroe Williams Department Store. The young widow and mother of three daughters took over the operation of the cleaners.
Fortunately, she had wonderful help from her brother, John Cook, and loyal employees who became like family.
The now late Shine Hays, a legendary and colorful Philadelphia pharmacist at the time, encouraged Mary Gipson to change the name because there were seven cleaners in town, so the business became Gipson Cleaners.
Mary Gipson decided to retire and Regina and Danny purchased the business.
They moved to the present location at 446 Beacon St. on the site of the original Gipson family homeplace and expanded in 1994 after McKay Florist burned doubling the size.
One of Regina’s sisters, Ann Gipson Stubbs, moved back to Mississippi from Texas when they retired and has worked part-time making the business a family affair still.
Another sister, Laura Gipson Kilpatrick, has close ties.
Regina, Ann and Laura have lots of fun memories growing up in the cleaners.
Mary Gipson served as a Philadelphia alderman and continued working part-time at the cleaners until she was 92. Mrs. Gipsonn died in 2011 at the age of 100.
“Mama would have kept working, but she could no longer back her car out of the driveway at her house,” Regina said.
They are fortunate to have had the best employees, — nine at the end — many of whom have worked there for 20-plus years, she said.
Ann and Regina recalled in the “good ole days” growing up when people who lived in the country only came to town on Saturdays, a very busy day at the cleaners. That was the day most people got paid then as well.
“We would run out to the street and get their clothes,” Regina said. “It was curb service.”
They recalled working until 9 or 10 o’clock at night on Saturdays because of the heavy workload.
Just Among Friends columnist Marianne Enochs fondly remembered her early days at the cleaners in the 1970s.
“I started with Gipson Cleaners in 1971 when we moved to Philadelphia,” she wrote in last week’s Democrat. “Mary Gipson was a wonderful person who always managed to repair and get out unimaginable spots from my clothing. (I was an Elementary teacher!).
“Gipson Cleaners was not only a business but an institution in Philadelphia. Someone was always available to sew on buttons, stitch up hems and alter Candler’s formals and clothing. There was nothing that could not be fixed!”