January 5, 2011 11:58:00 AM
Scott Colom - [email protected]
When I walked in to Wells Cleaners one recent afternoon, I thought it was still owned by Floyd Wells. In fact, I associate Wells Cleaners with the Wells family so much I briefly mistook the new owner, Oscar Lang, to be a member of the Wells family. During our conversation, I began to suspect Mr. Lang might like it this way.
Most of the interview, Mr. Lang refused to tell me his last name. He thought a column focused on him might bring unwanted attention. On the other hand, throughout our conversation, Mr. Lang would greet each arriving customer by name. Knowing folks seem like a part of Mr. Lang''s business. This begs the question: do Mr. Lang''s customers know him?
Mr. Lang grew up on Columbus'' Northside. He left Mississippi to go to college in South Carolina and moved to Charleston when he got married. While there, he was employed as an electrician and eventually started his own business doing electrical work. When he learned he could buy Wells cleaners from Kenneth Townsend, who had bought it from Floyd Wells, he decided to move home and raise his two daughters, Cassie and Ashley, here.
Since that time, close to 10 years ago, Mr. Lang has continued the legacy of Wells Cleaners. Later, I called Mr. Wells and found out that Wells cleaners originally opened in 1978, when he moved home from Chicago to be closer to his family (recognize a pattern?). The cleaners became a staple of the community because Mr. Wells put quality first.
Mr. Wells had such a reputation in the community that Mr. Lang asked him to return to the business and help him get things started. Mr. Lang even had Mr. Wells park his car in front of the store, while he parked his across the street.
Wells Cleaners'' reputation has helped it survive even the current recession. Mr. Lang says business is picking back up but worries that there are long-term problems facing the dry cleaning business. Because the modern workforce is requiring less formal clothing (I mostly wear jeans to work) and corporations are franchising more and more chain stores and have economies of scale, he thinks the era of independent, small dry cleaning business may be dying. (Just think, what if Walmart got into the dry cleaning business?)
Despite that concern, Mr. Lang plans to continue the Wells tradition. He takes on apprentices every year. Quentell Lowery, one of his past apprentices visited the store while I was there. Quentell currently works for Semi-South in Starkville and is about to graduate from East Mississippi Community College in May. However, when he attended Columbus High School, he worked at Wells cleaners in the afternoons to learn the business.
Later, as I thought about my conversations with Mr. Wells and Mr. Lang, I reflected on the future of Wells cleaners. Most start-up businesses don''t last. For a small business to last 40 years, to survive two changes in ownership, to survive the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, to operate in a part of town with few other commercial businesses, it must be doing something right.
Maybe Wells Cleaners has survived because it means something to people. It means something to Quentell, who dreams of running it one day. It means something to Rose Bush, who''s worked there for more than six years. It means something to me, and I didn''t even know the name of the current owner.
After I left the store, I thought to call Mr. Lang and ask him why he didn''t change the name of the cleaners when he bought it. He responded with the question, why would he?
Scott Colom is a local attorney. His e-mail address is [email protected]
Scott Colom is a local attorney.