Address: 715 High St, Thornbury VIC 3071
From an interview with Dante in 2020 that has been edited
Published in collaboration with the City of Darebin
I was 19 and a half when I came to Melbourne.
I started in Italy working in the clothing industry and, when I came here, I kept it up.
My first business was in a clothing shop in Kensington, then I went to work at Airport West before that business collapsed.
I worked for Fletcher Jones and John Sackville among others – mostly pressing clothes – but the industry is very volatile.
I was very passionate about textiles growing up, but the businesses I worked for closed down.
Why I moved to Melbourne from Italy in 1955 is a very big question to answer.
Italy in those years was in a bad position because of the war. Things weren’t so good, then I was drafted into the army. I never liked the army situation, and I didn’t want to fire a gun. I’ve never fired a gun in my life.
I bought a ticket to Australia as a tourist, not as an immigrant. It cost me £360, which was a significant amount considering most Italian people came through the £10 scheme. I couldn’t wait to get an immigrant visa, because – had I waited – I could have been drafted.
When I came to Port Melbourne, the policeman said “the Italian army want you back to serve.”
“Do you want to go back, or do you want to stay?”
“I want to stay,” I said.
They gave me a pass to stay in Australia, so I stayed.
I couldn’t speak a word of English when I arrived.
It was pretty rough, but when you’re young you can put up with a lot of different things. People who were older than me found it to be very difficult and, after a few years, they went back. But I settled into Australia really quickly. I landed in Melbourne, and never moved anywhere else.
I initially lived in Carlton. It was one room and nice enough, so I stayed there for a number of years. I then moved to Kensington, met and married my wife – who has run a dress shop there for the last 40 years – and bought a business in the 1967. Ultimately, that business went downhill.
In 1963 – when Southern Cross opened – I went to work there as a presser, and spent some time working in Essendon and Thornbury dry-cleaners. I was also working as a waiter a few nights a week.
How did I have time? Boy oh boy, that’s the question. I never rested much – even now I work 6-7 days a week.
At 6:30am this morning I was here working.
I have to do it.
I bought this business in 1978
It wasn’t that exciting really – I used to work for the owners. From employee, I became a boss.
Thornbury has changed a lot over the years. In the 1970s, on a Saturday morning you couldn’t walk on the footpath because it was so busy. There were hardware shops, dress shops, lots of butchers plus every other shop you could think of. The guy who ran the milk-bar down the road would buy one house a year.
But my business has remained the same besides the new machines. If you walked in here in the 1970s, it would look pretty similar to how it looks now.
The main difference is I have two conveyers, where before I had none.
I found with dry-cleaning that it’s rewarding if you put the time and effort into it.
It can be very profitable, but you have to work hard alongside your employees.
Another perk is you meet different people in this job. Roughly 50-100 people per day, and 80% of our customers are regulars. I don’t know what it is about us, but I try to treat everyone fairly. The people I work with are also great, which brings customers through the door.
They know us because we’ve been here over 40 years. A lot of people move out of the area, but come back to the shop. They might travel from Doncaster, Epping or Keilor to get their dry-cleaning from us. Before them, it was their parents and grandparents who came in.
All the generations come here.
The equipment is much better and easier to run nowadays, but dry-cleaning as a business is much the same.
The machines we used to use involved a lot more work by hand, and they’d smell and be toxic. Today, it’s all clean and you don’t hear any noise.
When everyone got laundry machines, and dry-cleaning dropped a bit, I tried to boost other parts of the business. That’s why I do high-volume packages, like a laundry service of five shirts for $15. As a result, we do 400 to 600 shirts a day. A lot of our business was shop uniforms from the CBD, but that dropped off because of COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, we’d sometimes have 9-10 customers waiting in line before 9am.
As of last year, the first customer might walk in at 10am, or 12pm.
A lot of people in our five-kilometre radius came over the course of 2020.
People here are pretty good, and they’re appreciative of small, local businesses in the area.
You have to be careful to understand the customer sometime, and a part of that is offering different conversations and asking how they’re going. Even though business dropped off over the last year, we stayed open the whole time. What’s the alternative – to stay home?
A lot of people don’t know how to wash or scrub their collar. If they can’t do it, and we’re not open, they have no shirt and that can have huge ramifications for their business.
They might not be able to function if they don’t look the part, and the staff here do such an excellent job.
Many years ago, the government had a TAFE in Brunswick where they taught dry-cleaning, but nobody went.
It’s hard work to start with, but it hasn’t killed me. I’ve been here nearly 40 years, and only rarely do people come up and ask for a job.
But for me, I’m 86. I’m still coming in every day. I don’t smoke or drink, and it keeps my mind and body going.
I’m excited to come to work every day.
On Sunday, if I have nothing to do, I’ll still come into the shop.
It’s a bit like my safe place.
Written by Aron Lewin, with all photos by Tatiana C.C. Scott