Even essential businesses struggle during the pandemic

Even essential businesses struggle during the pandemic
The Greener Cleaner sits on the 2000 block of Mount Vernon Avenue. (Photo/Margo Wagner)

By Margo Wagner

For more than 10 years, the Greener Cleaner has operated out of a two-story brick building on a busy block of Mount Vernon Avenue. Its owner, Serdar Basegmez, has been dry cleaning since the 1980s. He enjoys owning a business in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood because it reminds him of his youth.

“It reminded me of where I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey,” Basegmez said. “The kind of neighborhood where everybody is on the street, and people know each other.”

Serdar Basegmez stands behind the computer in the Greener Cleaner. Since Alexandrians began social distancing about two months ago, Basegmez’s business has been eerily quiet. (Photo/Margo Wagner)

That all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Basegmez’s once busy business is now struggling to find clothes to clean.

“Our business is pretty much dead because we depend on people who go to work and travel,” Basegmez said.

Most of his clients work for the federal government or in D.C.’s private sector. Under Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) executive orders, dry cleaning is an essential business, so Basegmez is allowed to stay open. However, now that many of his clients work from home, business has declined.

“Our business is close to 100 percent dead,” Basegmez said.

The Greener Cleaner used to operate for more than 70 hours per week. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Basegmez cut the business’ hours in half and now closes on Sundays. Once filled with the sound of a gold bell dinging from the top of the door as neighbors dropped off and picked up their weekly dry cleaning, the Greener Cleaner is now silent.

Basegmez regularly speaks to the other business owners along the avenue, who are worried, too.

“You’re worrying about how you are going to pay your mortgage,” Basegmez said. “How you are going to pay your employees, and how you are going to pay yourself.”

A sign hangs in the front window of the Greener Cleaner, advertising the business’s new hours. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greener Cleaner is now closed in the evenings and on Sundays. (Photo/Margo Wagner)

But there is a glimmer of hope. Members of the Del Ray community are using listservs and email groups to encourage each other to support small businesses.

“Some of our clients are trying to support us by digging in their closets or basements and bringing us some business,” Basegmez said about the community support he has received.

The Del Ray Dads is a group for fathers in the neighborhood. The fathers communicate frequently via email. Recently, a member of the group sent a message to the group urging members of the community to keep bringing the Greener Cleaner clothes to dry clean and tailor.

Michael Wilker founded the Del Ray Dads and has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years. He believes it is important to support small businesses whenever possible.

“We are a big dog-walking, stroller-pushing, family-oriented, pet-oriented community, and these are our friends and neighbors who are running these businesses,” Wilker said.

He is encouraging members of the community to keep going to local businesses that will remain open while following proper social distancing guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes ordering food for pickup and delivery, buying gift cards or taking online yoga classes.

“Remember that those should be the first places you go to – not McDonald’s or places like that which are bigger corporate entities,” Wilker said. “They support so many facets of our daily life, [so] it is vital to keep them up and running.”

Both essential and nonessential businesses have been relying on local resources during the pandemic.

Small businesses around the country are struggling to access government aid, but counseling and step-by-step instructions from the Del Ray Business Association and Alexandria Small Business Development Center are available to help small businesses through the process.

Melissa McGlone, owner of Vital Body & Mind, a colon hydrotherapy business in Del Ray, used information from the DRBA to apply for government aid after her business was deemed nonessential and forced to temporarily close.

“I’m not one of those people that loves to fill out forms,” McGlone said. “So, I think they’ve made it very easy for folks like me, who really have to fill out these forms to get the help.”

McGlone hopes to expand her online presence and start seeing clients virtually for nutritional counseling.

“The blessing for me is that it will force me to grow in a different way,” McGlone said. “I expect that my business will look different on the other side, and it probably needed some change. I think all of us are feeling the growing pains but in the end, we’ll come out more positive and even more willing to help each other.”

As for the Greener Cleaner, Basegmez plans to stay open with the reduced hours. He is hoping the situation will improve in the next few weeks – both for himself and for the avenue.

“[I am] hoping that everybody’s going to survive the situation,” Basegmez said. “We’re just waiting [to see] how everything is going to play out.”

Currently, the neighborhood is waiting for Northern Virginia to reopen, which could occur as soon as May 28, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

The writer is an Alexandria resident and journalism student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

(Read more: Alexandria receives $13.9 million in CARES funding)