COCHRAN -- Greg Berryhill began letting folks know on Christmas Eve he had decided to close his family’s dry cleaning business.
News travels fast in a small town, even without a high-speed modem. Word jumped from mouth to mouth and corner to corner. It spread across the college campus, along the railroad tracks and out on the bypass east of town.
Greg drove to Pulaski-Bleckley Memorial Gardens and had a heart-to-heart at the graves of his parents, Calvin and Katie Berryhill.
“I cried like a baby,” he said. “I know they would have understood. I carried on the legacy as long as I could.”
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Calvin’s Cleaners has been an institution in Cochran since 1949. The store on North Second Street has been starching shirts and hemming skirts since Truman was in the White House.
Years ago, there was a jingle on the local radio station.
Calvin’s Cleaners Cleans Clothes Clean ... Cleaner Than Your Washing Machine.
Now, the alliteration will receive an alteration.
Calvin’s Cleaners Is Closing.
It has been an emotional two weeks since Greg announced Cochran’s only dry cleaning business will throw in the towel after Saturday.
Folks have been stopping by to pick up their clothes and pay their last respects, as if this final stretch of business days is like a visitation before the funeral service.
“It will be kind of like that last episode of ‘Cheers,’ when they cut the lights off,” Greg said. “It just won’t seem real.”
Yes, Calvin’s is a lot like Cheers, minus the bar stools. It’s a place where everybody knows your name, along with your dress size. Calvin and Katie Berryhill grew up on opposite ends of Bleckley County. Calvin lived in the rural community of Limestone. Katie resided in Salem.
You might say they stayed in the cotton business all their lives. They picked it in the fields of their family farms. They sewed, steamed and pressed its collars and sleeves at their family dry cleaners.
They met not long after Calvin returned from World War II, where he was a supply sergeant in the Army. Katie was working for the L&H shirt factory in Cochran.
They married in 1948, and worked together at a local dry cleaners until the following year, when they opened Calvin’s.
Three years later, they set up shop in a tiny building that once housed a grocery store. Katie sewed and did alterations until her arthritic fingers would no longer move.
They had been married for 13 years before they had children. Greg was born in 1961, and Philip came along five years later.
Like many businesses in Cochran and other communities, Calvin’s traditionally closed early on Wednesdays.
So it was good planning when Greg and Philip were both born on a Wednesday. Their hard-working father conveniently had the day off, and was back at the presser the next day.
The Berryhill boys grew up riding the coattails of the family business. They swept the floors, made deliveries and greeted customers over the smell of perchloroethylene.
Greg attended Middle Georgia College for two years, then transferred to the University of Georgia “during the Herschel Walker administration.” After college, he was employed at Robins Air Force Base until 1988, when he returned home to help his family.
His mother’s declining health forced her into an early retirement, and his dad leaned heavily on him to help keep the door open and the garment conveyer moving.
Katie died in 1999. Calvin passed away in 2004 and was still working when he died.
“He turned 80 in January, found out he had cancer in February and by July he was in heaven,” Greg said. “Some of the newer customers come in and think I’m Calvin. I don’t mind. It’s my middle name.”
The challenges weren’t nearly as daunting in the days before permanent press and no-iron shirts.
As the economy began to stumble seven years ago, small businesses took it on the chin. The local economy suffered when the shirt factory and Lithonia Lighting closed.
There is only so much red ink you can get out of fabric.
“Some people started thinking of dry cleaning as a luxury item, so they cut back,” he said. “Also, a lot of people stopped dressing up for church. I think it’s great that they’re going to church, but they dress in casual clothes. Some businesses no longer make their employees dress up, either.”
When he began having to repair and replace equipment, he realized the return on his investment would not be sufficient.
Of course, if he had kept all the money people leave in their pockets by mistake, he might be a rich man.
“They tell me I’m honest for giving it back,” he said, “I just say the Lord knows it’s not my money.”
His father told him before he died he should consider doing something that is not so confining.
“I get here at 5 a.m. and sometimes don’t finish until 6:30 or 7 at night,” he said. “I’ve never been married. When people ask me about it, I say I’m married to the cleaners.
“I feel like I’m turning my back, in a sense. I had somebody tell me that I looked after my mom and dad, my employees and customers. There comes a time when I have to look out for Greg. But I’m 53 years old, and starting over in life, which is very scary.”
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