Longtime employee takes over New Paltz dry cleaners

Donna Murray has just purchased Royal Dry Cleaners in New Paltz Plaza, after 36 years of working there as a clerk and then as the dry cleaner and manager. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Donna Murray might be new to owning the local dry-cleaning business, but she has been pressing, destaining and cleaning people’s precious wardrobes for more than 36 years. Murray moved to New Paltz from Long Island in 1985. She explained that her husband had family up here; it was too expensive for the young couple to afford Long Island at the time and they “wanted to start a family somewhere with a good school district in a smaller town.” For the first three months she traveled to and from New York City, where she worked in advertising, but the commute became too much. “The only people I knew in town were my in-laws, so I thought it would be a good idea to try and get a job in town where I could meet people.”

She was thinking a grocery store, pharmacy, bank; but when she walked past Royal Dry Cleaners in the New Paltz Plaza, she saw a Help Wanted sign and walked in. “They gave me the job that day!” – “they” being the original owners, Burt and Stanley Kanover, two brothers from Brooklyn. “Stanley was a horror to work with,” she says with a laugh at her celebratory Grand Reopening as the new owner of the business. “Burt was a sweetheart. They lived in Woodstock, and Burt kept a cot in the store in case of bad weather; he would stay here so he could open the store the next day.”

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Then, in 2001, the brothers sold the business to A. J. Jamal. “He was so great to work for, and over the past 20 years we’ve become good friends. I go to visit his mother Kay in Puerto Rico; they’re like family.” In fact, it was Jamal who encouraged Murray to get her dry-cleaning license – yes, license! “Most people don’t know that you have to go to school for dry cleaning and become licensed by the DEC,” she said as she greeted customers and friends, offering them champagne and cookies. “It’s because of the machinery and the chemicals we have to use.”

She shows Hudson Valley One the large, sealed dry-cleaning machine, which has its own ventilation system and needs to be operated by a licensed individual. “It’s not really ‘dry.’ It goes in dry; the chemicals are wet, but it comes out dry. Then I use any stain remover I need here,” she says, pointing to another station labeled neatly with a cheat sheet for what type of stains need which combination of chemicals to remove them. And then there’s the pressing station with heavy-duty suit-shaped iron waffle machines that press those seams and take out every wrinkle.

Asked what their most common stain is, Murray says, “You’re going to laugh, but it’s actually mustard! We get so many mustard stains, and second to that would be toothpaste spots. It dribbles down on people’s clothes!”

What about the most memorable dry-cleaning experiences she has had? She pauses for a moment and then says, “Well, we might have accidentally caused a divorce!” Apparently, back in the day when hotel keys were actual keys and not cards, they were cleaning and pressing a customer’s suit and found a single key in one of the jacket pockets. “Being the nice people that we are, we put it in a small envelope and stapled it to the receipt. What we didn’t know was that his wife came to pick up the suit and found the key.”

There have been plenty of things found in pockets that are as unsavory, illicit or even fortuitous. “We found $700 in a customer’s bathrobe pocket. I called her right away, and she was so thankful!”

Murray has some odd stories as well, such as like a man coming in with a full-sized pink bunny rabbit suit and asking her to take “extra-good care of it, because it’s my favorite outfit. And he was the sweetest person!”

Another interesting situation was when a woman came in to have her $5,000 wedding dress cleaned. “This was years ago, so imagine what the dress would cost now.” Murray went to read the label to make sure she had all of the instructions and had to throw her hands up. “It wouldn’t let me do anything. The label said you couldn’t dry-clean it, spot-clean it, hand-wash it… There was nothing I could do. I told the customer that I would write a letter to the dress company and explain that they had made a dress that could not be cleaned.” The woman was given $4,000 back and told Murray, “Go ahead and clean it; I’ve already gotten the majority of the money back.”  “And it came out beautiful!” says Murray. “That was fun.”

With so many events being canceled during the pandemic, Royal suddenly went from having a few wedding dresses a year to having close to 30 in 2021. “Everyone got married this year. It was wild. We’ve done so many wedding dresses and then boxed them,” to keep them archival and air-sealed with acid-free paper so that they do not yellow over time. “That’s a great gift to give someone at their wedding: a gift certificate to have their dress professionally cleaned and boxed. Those cost around $270.”

With people’s homes and establishments opening up more and hosting events, Royal is getting all kinds of draperies, tablecloths, designer rugs, tapestries – “all kinds of household items, even towels!”

The bread-and-butter of the business are men’s suits and shirts, as well as all of the clothing she can do on-site. “Having my own machine here is huge. Whenever you have to ship something out, it costs more money, takes more time. So, I love being able to do most things right here.” The dry-cleaning shop also has an on-site tailor who does alterations. Murray also notes that she’s focused on being as green as possible, reusing hangers and “giving away these green cloth dry-cleaning bags, so that we can move away from plastic altogether!”

Murray is both excited and nervous about taking on the ownership of the business. “I’ve been here for so long, and have met friends that I still have today and whose children are now my customers. I’ve had so many great employees – mostly college students, who then go on to start their lives once they’ve graduated – and I feel so fortunate to have had the support of the community. That’s who my clientele has always been: the locals.” She also has an increasing number of regulars from New York City who have second homes in the area and “drop their clothes and household items off before they head back to the City and pick it up when they return.”

She mentions how fortunate she was to be able to have her child and take time off as a new mother, but “still come in and work if someone was sick or on vacation. They [the Kanovers] let me work when I could, but be with my girl when I needed to.”

Royal King Dry Cleaners is one of the oldest, original businesses in the Plaza. Murray can still vividly remember Barker’s and Baxter’s and Ames, Valley Video, Sue’s Zoo, the arcade and the Salvation Army that was located where the Dollar Store is now. “Everyone at the Plaza has been so supportive,” she says. And it’s evident how much people enjoy stopping in and chatting with Murray as they pick up their newly minted clothes. “That’s one of the best things about this job: You’ll have someone walk in, and all of a sudden you just start talking and learn so much about them.”

The first change Murray will make is to return to the original name, Royal Cleaners. “When Jamal bought it, he wanted to tweak it a little bit, so he made it ‘Royal King Cleaners,’ which I thought was redundant. And he knew that!” she laughs. “But I want the original name.”

Murray plans on having various specials and giveaways and fun discounts, like “Bring your suit in on Fridays and get your shirt and tie cleaned for free.”

With the champagne was flowing and the conversation tumbling like the cleaning machine, there’s a jingle above the door each time someone walks in, eliciting a genuine smile and wave from Murray, the new owner.