New owners reinvigorate iconic launderette
By Deborah McDermott
KITTERY, Maine – A longtime Kittery Foreside couple — one a hair salon owner and one a sales representative at GreenPages — are awash in detergent and fabric softener these days, as the new owners of the Kittery Maytag Launderette.
Jill Belilah and Tracy Johnson agree they’ve had to learn an awful lot about the Laundromat business the past few months, but said they have long been drawn to the 1960-era Government Street building with its floor-to-ceiling windows.
“We have always loved this building,” said Belilah, who owns Doo Salon right down the street. “It’s architecturally a really iconic and interesting building.”
“It is so purely representative of that time that it appealed to us,” added Johnson.
The launderette had been owned by Herve and Irene Dionne from the time it opened until Irene’s passing in 2001, and then was owned and managed by their son, Donald. Belilah and Johnson, who have been together for 18 years, remember Irene Dionne fondly as a neighbor.
“Irene was known as ‘The voice of God.’ She lived across the street, and could see in the launderette. There was a speaker in here, and when she saw something she didn’t like, she’d say something on the speaker, like ‘Please don’t sit on the washer,’” said Belilah. “I can’t believe the number of people who have told me about her.”
They said after Donald Dionne took over, they told him that when he was ready to retire to let them know. Johnson, who owned a café in Dover in the 1990s, and Beliliah have both been small business owners, and felt ready for the challenge.
Early on, they considered different uses for the building – a 50s-style burger joint with car hops came to mind – but soon realized the town would be best served by continuing the Laundromat. “I felt very strongly from the start that we wanted to keep it just as it is. We don’t need more restaurants, and this adds to the diversity of Kittery,” Belilah said. “There are a lot of people who need to do laundry.”
A demographic survey confirmed their hunch that Kittery would continue to support a launderette.
The couple bought the business from Dionne this spring, closed it July 14 and reopened at the end of August.
They said knew they were going to have to undertake renovations – but had no idea just how extensive the repairs would be. “We wanted to restore it, but it was bigger than we thought,” Belilah said.
The support beams were rotted and needed to be replaced, the plumbing and electrical system were replaced, a new venting system was installed, the ceiling removed and raised. The epoxy paint on the cement floor needed to be removed and no construction crew wanted to take on the dirty and dusty work, so the couple rented a grinder and did the work themselves.
“It was a dirty, thankless job, but it had to be done,” said Johnson.
Today, only four of the old washing machines remain. Inside are 20 brand new washers of various sizes and 24 new driers, including two jumbo driers. All the washing machines are named for people and pets – Irene, of course, and Willa the cat to name two. All the driers are named for places the two have either been or want to go to like Washington, Philadelphia, Yellowstone and, of course, Kittery.
They feel like they have saved the old place from an uncertain future in a town that is becoming more desirable, and they are pleased they were able to do that.
“It was a passionate move on our part, but we think it will work out,” said Johnson.
“I think there’s a little bit of crazy in us,” said Belilah.