It could occasionally get awkward at Burns Brothers dry cleaners in McLean, Va., like whenever Rep. Debbie Dingell and Callista Gingrich showed up at the same time and heaved their clothes onto the Formica counter.
Debbie is a Michigan Democrat. Callista is former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s third wife. “Mrs. Dingell was friends with the second Mrs. Gingrich,” explained Amy Burns, a daughter of Don Burns, who co-founded the shop in 1949.
But everyone would be cordial. Burns Brothers has always focused on actual dirty laundry, not the metaphorical kind, a wise practice considering that its customers spanned the political spectrum, from the Republican Gingriches, Meeses and Quayles to the Democratic Dingells, Gephardts and Kennedys.
William Rehnquist used to drop off his dry cleaning, too, although not his Supreme Court robes, said Amy, 57.
Burns Brothers has been a fixture on Old Dominion Drive for 67 years, but Saturday, it closed its doors for good. I dropped by Friday.
“I am distraught,” said longtime customer Nancy Thompson, a travel agent. She hadn’t known the store was closing.
“They know how to do Hermes scarves,” Nancy said, whipping one from around her neck. “The edge is hand-stitched. You can’t just press them. It ruins them. I used to send mine to New York to be cleaned until I found out they could do them here.”
Nancy had brought in a wool sweater she had gotten in New Zealand. It didn’t look like much — a shapeless brown pullover covered in pills — but she wouldn’t trust it to anyone else.
Burns Brothers wasn’t officially accepting new items, but Amy wrote out a ticket and promised it the next day.
Burns Brothers became known for its posh clientele, which is ironic, because when Don and his brother, Bob, opened the shop, McLean was dotted with dairy farms, not mansions.
“People would say, ‘Are you going to dry clean the farmers’ overalls?’ ” said the retired Don, 87, who had stopped by on his way to the bank.
It was Don who transformed the establishment into the laundry equivalent of a trendy nightclub’s velvet-roped VIP area. In the early 1980s, Burns Brothers was so busy that Don felt his service was suffering.
“Business professors would tell you to open up a second location or crank up the prices 20 percent,” said son Mark Burns, 50. “You might lose 20 percent of your customers, but you’d still make money.”
Don didn’t do that. Instead, he instituted a waiting list. It grew to more than 3,000 names — longer than the Chevy Chase Country Club’s, Don crowed to a Post reporter in 1985.
“It made us look snobby,” Amy said of the waiting list, “but it was fun.”
It seems to have worked. Dry cleaning put Don’s six kids through college, each one spending time working at the shop.
In the back of the building, under hangers strewn with blouses, pants, wedding dresses and blankets, I talked with Amy and Mark about stains. Yellow French’s mustard is a pain, they said. So is bronzer. That fake tan stuff only started showing up in the past few years.
Said Mark: “They’ll wear a white knit suit and you open up the collar and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, Tammy Faye Bakker wore this, I see.’ ”
They chuckled at some customers’ home remedies, such as pouring white wine on a red-wine stain.
“Now I’ve got to clean white wine and red wine out of there,” Mark said.
The secret to a red-wine stain is to pour boiling water through it. But be careful, Amy said. One client misunderstood her and set a large pan of water to boil on the stove, then pulled a tablecloth through it, catching the fabric on fire.
“You just made yourself a smaller tablecloth,” Mark said.
Of course, never use hot water on bloodstains. It sets the proteins. Use cold water instead.
Speaking of blood brought another Burns Brothers customer to mind: Edward Kennedy. Mark said the late Massachusetts senator was partial to dress shirts made of silk — a demanding fabric — the collars of which would often be blotted with blood from shaving cuts.
“Then there was all the food,” Mark said. “He was kind of a slob, which made him a great customer.”
Ted Kennedy’s gone and so is the world he came from. What we call “dressing up,” a previous generation just called “dressing.”
Sighed Mark: “I think the dry cleaning industry is just heading downhill, honestly. There are too many casual days.” Even lawyers, he said, only wear suits on special occasions.
The 2008 recession dealt a blow from which Burns Brothers never really recovered. Recent rent increases didn’t help. And then came word that the entire shopping strip will eventually be torn down and replaced by a “town center.”
“There’s never mom-and-pop shops in the middle of them,” Mark said.
And in the end, that’s what Burns Brothers was: a family business that didn’t just clean the fabric of McLean, but was part of it, too.
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