On Saluda Street, there is only one June’s Car Cleaners. It has no gleaming sign. No modern conveniences. No Wi-Fi and no credit card machines.
All it has is people. Washrags in hand, smiles on faces. Characters, in a city and world sometimes sorely lacking in both.
For one more week.
Owner June Barnette rents the space adjacent to a convenience store, but his rent was set to go up this year. In a tough economy, and during the winter when the seasonal car wash business is slow, Barnette said he could no longer afford to stay in the building.
Friday is June’s Car Cleaners’ last day in business.
“I started washing cars in 1980 with one employee – quit a good-paying job at the Bleachery to do it; people said I was crazy,” Barnette said. “Hard work, good service, I haven’t stopped for all these years.”
This is a closure with no villains, except a poor economy.
Kim Nguyen, owner of the building that also houses Gee Gee’s store, said she hadn’t raised rent in years and as a business owner , she has to pay her own mortgage, insurance and taxes. Some of those costs have risen sharply in recent years, so she had to raise rent to stay in business.
For 22 years in the present location near Summit Street – halfway down the long city block of Saluda Street that is the spine of the largely black-owned business district – cars have been washed at June’s Car Cleaners. It is a business that has employed dozens of people, washed a million cars, and launched a thousand conversations and friendships.
There is no powerful building-housed fountain of water, no automatic washer. There are many of those types of business around the city. June’s is hand wash, wax and detail, cash, and a smile. But after Friday , that cozy, handshake business will either move, or no longer exist.
“It breaks my heart, and for the eight people who work for me, it hurts,” Barnette said. “These people got families.”
Barnette started his business going door-to-door, building a car wash business through hustle. News that the place would shut down hit like a punch to the gut.
Customers Pam Robinson and Angel Robinson are distraught that the car wash is closing.
“This is the only place you can take the car where you know the people and they do it right and it’s like family,” Pam Robinson said.
Some employees have stayed for years, many times washing cars as second jobs to make ends meet.
“Probably 15 years I’ve been here – I work days and have another job at night – and Mr. Barnette always says the customer has to be happy, so that the customer comes back again,” said employee Roger Hayes.
Freddie Barnette, June Barnette’s brother, has worked at the cleaners for at least 20 years. Donald McCoy, three years working, put it this way: “I need this job.”
There is no rush at June’s. The job is done when it is done right and to hang around and shoot the breeze is part of the service. It is anti-modern, thus pro-social.
One afternoon last week, more than a dozen cars pulled onto the lot. Some were washed. Other people just wanted to say “hello,” shoot the breeze.
June’s Car Cleaners used to be what being alive with a few dollars in a pocket after a week’s hard work meant. No self-respecting man would go out on the town on a Friday or Saturday night, or to church Sunday morning, with a dirty car.
That business model of customer service seems so simple. A job well-done at a good price, a few bucks for tip, and the customer comes back. The customer is happy, the owner makes a few dollars and can pay the rent, and the employees make enough to keep the lights on at home.
Barnette, who also owns and operates a bus tour company and might be best known for his four decades in gospel music, is hoping to find a new building to keep the business going. Until then, he will offer pick-up and delivery of cars, with a wash in between.
But the business will be gone from Saluda Street.
The laughs, the talk, the people coming in to pass along what is important and whose kid had a baby and more – all will have to find someplace else.