Angelo is the owner of the Launderette on 369 New Cross Road. He comes in especially to have a chat with me about the demolition plans in New Cross, and together we go to Mughead Coffee where the staff seem to know exactly how he likes his coffee. He chats with Mark for a bit, the business owner – they seem well acquainted – before we sit down to talk about the Launderette.
“The Launderette itself has been here since the early 60s and used to be a Father & Son operation with other launderettes in New Cross and other areas”, Angelo explains. Then, in the early 90s, Angelo’s brother Joe bought the one on New Cross Road, did a lot of refurbishing work to it and replaced the old machines with newer versions, and then, several years later, Angelo took over in 2008. “It’s a contagious disease, I’m not joking”, he laughs, and tells how many of his family and friends have become involved with launderettes. “It all started with my brother dating a girl whose father was of Italian origin and owned a string of launderettes. The relationship didn’t last but my brother thought ‘I’ll try that’.” His brother has since bought a few, including one on Jamaica Road which is now owned by Angelo’s nephew. Even Angelo’s best friend, a former banker who had a midlife career crisis, unsure what to do, took his girlfriend to Nottingham to live above the launderette he now owns.
But being in the Launderette business doesn’t make you rich. “There is no growth”, Angelo explains. “A launderette business doesn’t grow like other businesses do, and it doesn’t have a high turnover. You can’t pay the high rents big restaurants can pay for example, and most launderettes are surviving because they are on good locations in council properties and have a reasonable rent. About four or five businesses on this parade are still on old tenancies and once the new development is here, the rent price will be double if not triple. Launderettes are viable businesses only because of low overheads. What kills them is the high market rates.” So, even if Angelo was offered new premises in the new development, the overheads would be too high to run it.
Interestingly for me, there is still demand for launderettes. “Not everybody’s got a washing machine, but even if people do”, Angelo says, “there’s still a demand which has nothing to do with people’s class position. The association of launderettes with merely the working-class and people in social housing is outdated – we have customers from all walks of life. The demand today is due to convenience: the machines we have can handle high capacity and the laundry can dry quickly, so the whole laundry can be done in an hour. Drying is a particular issue today. Many live in small flats with no space or facility to dry clothes so coming to a launderette solves that problem.” In Angelo’s launderette the water is also treated before it’s used and people notice the change in the fabric, another reason, according to Angelo, why his launderette is doing good business. “If the launderette closes, people will have to travel further for this convenience”, making this convenience less convenient.
Angelo agrees that the parade needs investment but that this is due to the council not having done a lot for its upkeep. “It’s a nice parade but it’s stuck in the 60s”, Angelo states. Lewisham Council did commission the artist group ARTMONGERS a couple of years ago to spruce up the parade a bit and to paint work along the road. They came into the shops asking people what they’d like to see. Also Angelo was asked and together with the artist they designed the shop front we see today. “It really takes an artist to see things from a different perspective. I was just going to suggest some writing to advertise the services but the artists said no, we need something more interesting and then he came up with the design you see today. It really makes a difference”, Angelo says. But that’s all that’s been done it seems, and Angelo thinks that Lewisham council doesn’t involve itself much in making the parade look nicer. “Lewisham Council is more concerned with housing and the plans I’ve seen – 5-storey blocks across the whole parade starting from The Venue – this is huge! And I’m pretty certain the development plans will go ahead.” According to Angelo, the council have offered funding to relocate but despite this offer, Angelo doubts he’ll be able to set up again. “First, the business will be closed for a couple of years and then I need funds to re-invest in a new business. Also, will there actually be the chance of getting a unit on the new development and if so, it’ll be at full market rent which will be double or triple to what I pay now. I won’t set up another laundrette”, Angelo concludes.
After our chat we walk back to the launderette where we meet Nicola, one of Angelo’s employees who would presumably lose her job if the launderette were to close. Angelo and Nicola seem to have a very friendly relationship, laughing and joking about being photographed, and together I photograph them in the launderette.