Since 1952, when Thelma and Everett Brooks opened their Capitol Hill dry cleaners, the fine brushed cotton and wools they once handled have been replaced by a synthetic world of polyesters. But their friendship with patrons has remained 100 percent natural.
"They've just been my heart," said Jerome Jackson, who has known the Brookses for 30 years and who joined a throng of about 100 well-wishers Sunday at a community block party held in their honor to mark their retirement after 31 years.
They operated Brooks Valet Shop, at the corner of 10th and C streets SE, more like a community home than a business, fostering romances between customers, helping customers through bouts with illness and alcoholism, serving as a second home for neighborhood children and later the children's children, in addition to mending torn jackets and unfashionable hemlines.
"Every time I needed a little help, I could come tell Mr. and Mrs. Brooks," Jackson said.
"They really brought me back to where I am now," he said, adding that he credits the couple with helping him win a battle against alcoholism.
Customer Alan Loeb said simply, "This is a neighborhood institution. The Brookses know everybody and everything."
At the party, held in the middle of the 200 block of 10th Street, the Brookses received a key to the street in tribute to their service. The large rough-hewn wooden key, still damp from two coats of tan paint, was inscribed: "To Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, with love."
Thelma and Everett Brooks grew up around the corner from each other in Southeast in the shadow of the Capitol dome. They were childhood sweethearts, Everett Brooks said, recalling, "I carried her books for her." Once, when the upper reaches of the dome of the Capitol were opened to visitors, he scribbled their initials there, he said.
They were married 44 years ago and now live in upper Northeast.
The city they grew up in was a segregated one. Brooks still recalls the day when, as a young man, he delivered goods to the kitchen of a city restaurant on a broiling summer day and was denied water because he was black.
"It was almost as bad as a southern city," said Brooks, a balding man of 67, who greets customers with a look cast over his bifocals.
But the climate in their Capitol Hill neighborhood was markedly different. "It was one, big happy family," he said. Everybody was treated the same, whether poor, rich, black or white."
The Brookses opened their cleaners in a former saloon on another corner at 10th and C when most of the surrounding blocks were homes of working class blacks, many of whom had jobs at the Navy Yard at Eighth and M streets SE. Brooks once worked there in the supply room.
Eleven years ago they moved to their current location, just as middle-class white families, interested in restoring the community's rows of turn of the century homes, began to move in.
"We lost many of our friends when they renovated the area, but we also gained a lot," said Thelma Brooks, a small plump woman of 64 with a ready smile.
The friendly atmosphere of the small one-room shop, located on the ground floor of a Victorian house, has remained the same. Customers are greeted formally as "Mr." and "Mrs." but always warmly.
Children, pets, and friends of customers were acknowledged with a "pleased to meet you." Customers who forgot to pick up their laundry after several weeks would find it delivered to their homes by the Brookses.
The shop's friendly atmosphere and a wall of thriving plants masked the drab interior that included a few fading dry-cleaning posters and a bulletin board of outdated business cards. The Brookses worked behind a counter with their backs to a large circular rack of newly cleaned clothes sheathed in clear plastic bags.
"When I had illness, Mrs. Brooks sat with me in the hospital for four hours," recalled Ella Marshall, a longtime customer. "She gave me the courage to make it. She was just like family. She is a radiant person."
John Matthews said his own successful shoe shop a few blocks away is the result of encouragement from the Brookses. "When I used to be a little guy, Mr. Brooks also had a shoe repair service. He was instrumental in getting me to start my own shoe shop," said Matthews, who runs the Peter Bug Shoe Repair Academy.
The Brookses have no children so they have adopted most of those in the neighborhood.
If a child refused to allow his mother to pull a wiggly baby tooth, he'd willingly submit to Thelma Brooks. The Brookses were twice named honorary grandparents by their customers, Thelma Brooks recalled with pride.
Gail Carter, 23, a member of this extended family, recalled, "When I came out of college, I was really scared. Mrs. Brooks really talked to me, and made me look at things differently. She told me I had to have the courage to just go out and do it. She made me feel I could do it.
"I watched the cleaners grow up and she watched me grow up," Carter continued. "I love her. She's just a second momma to me."
The Brookses are quick to say that their customers have returned the countless favors. "They all had so much love and compassion for us, whenever we wanted for anything," said Thelma Brooks. "They would bring us ice water in the summer and big pots of stew in the winter, anything they thought we needed," she said.
Neighbors John Edward Bouden and Rose Carter would watch from their nearby porches every evening when the Brookses closed the shop, lest an intruder think them easy prey. Once neighbors saw a robbery at the cleaners and two of them called police, who arrived after the robbers had escaped with the day's receipts.
The Brookses said their decision to retire was difficult but, to the surprise of their friends and relatives, they sold the shop to Rick Levine, a longtime business acquaintance. He took over Sept. 1.
Failing health, and a desire to devote more time to church, volunteer work and hobbies, led them to conclude, "it's better for us to walk out then to be carried out."
Levine, who owns the dry-cleaning plant where the couple sent their clients' clothes, said he bought the shop because, "It was either lose their account, or buy it." Levine attended the block party with his family, mingling with his new customers, much to the approval of the Brookses.