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LEAD: Lily McKinley tossed small handfuls of clothes into a large yellow dryer at the West 79th Street coin laundry last week while listening to a description of Videotown Laundrette, which is scheduled to open on the next block in two weeks. She shook her gray hair and light blue knit cap skeptically at the tanning salon and video rentals the new laundry will offer.
Lily McKinley tossed small handfuls of clothes into a large yellow dryer at the West 79th Street coin laundry last week while listening to a description of Videotown Laundrette, which is scheduled to open on the next block in two weeks. She shook her gray hair and light blue knit cap skeptically at the tanning salon and video rentals the new laundry will offer.
''I put my laundry in and I go shopping,'' she said. ''I don't want to sit here and be entertained.''
But coin-laundry owners say the number of customers like Mrs. McKinley is dwindling, and they are sprucing up their stores to compete for young people accustomed to the comforts of shopping malls and more likely to view washing clothes as a social event.
More and more laundries around the nation are installing everything from bars and tanning salons to exercise machines and car washes, seeking to lure customers put off by the industry's image of grime, crime and unreliable machines. They have become meeting places for neighbors, college students and singles.
Mineral Water for Sale
At Oasis Laundries, a California chain, attendants sell mineral water as well as detergent, while at Suds-n-Such in Arlington, Tex., there are nachos, hot dogs and beer. At Eastern Depot Restaurant and Laundromat in Berlin, N.H., Anita Poulin cooks and serves broiled chicken and hamburgers to truck drivers, who also shovel five quarters apiece into washing machines.
In Greensboro, N.C., the owner of Suds & Duds, Bill Wardle, has a snack bar and is preparing to install a small pool hall and big-screen television sets for sports fans.
''It's a great place to meet girls; or men, I guess,'' said Mr. Wardle, who married one of his customers.
The growth of snack bars and other diversions in laundries helps fill a social need for places where neighbors and strangers can meet and get acquainted, said Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist at the University of West Florida, who has just published a book, ''The Great Good Place'' (Paragon House, $19.95), on the scarcity of such spots in American society. The coin laundry, he said, ''is that neutral ground; it's that place where people can get together and talk.''
The neighborhood laundry has even made it onto television, as the meeting place for a cross-section of punks and housewives on ''East Enders,'' a British soap opera shown on some American public television stations.
Laundries that also serve food and drink typically provide restrooms. ''You don't want to get detergent on your hot dog,'' said Bill R. Christensen, the vice president for real-estate development at Oasis Laundries Inc. ''That doesn't taste too good.''
Using the Imagination
Even the smallest laundries can be colorful if a little imagination is used, said Mr. Wardle, who started in 1976 with a small operation and hired a guitarist to entertain customers.
''He'd walk through and serenade people in the laundry,'' Mr. Wardle said. ''He's a lawyer now in Washington.''
In New York, a handful of laundries offer such services as chess tables and video rental machines. But because of high rents and cramped storefronts in New York, a recent building boom has resulted in some cleaner and better-lighted laundries with few of the innovations found elsewhere.
''In the city, rents are so high that you can barely get enough space to put in machines for a laundry,'' said Josh Karagoz, the owner of Nilco Laundromat Contracting, a Flushing builder. An exception, he said, is a laundry scheduled for construction next month in Staten Island that will include a 10-by-6-foot carpeted playpen surrounded by tables for folding clothes.
Videotown Laundrette on West 80th Street is another exception. It will include a 6,000-title videocassette rental library, two tanning booths and 300 mailboxes for rent, and will stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said the owner, Thomas W. Sherwood, a Trenton real-estate investor. ''There's a lot of single women and single men that live in that area,'' he said. ''We're going to cater to the yuppies.''
But Mr. Sherwood's laundry may remain an exception, because he owns the building and put in a laundry when he had trouble finding anybody to rent the space on the ground floor. Most coin-laundry buyers are families of modest means, often immigrants, who require loans to buy the machines and are unable to speculate in real estate at the same time, said Jan R. Sussman, the president of Coinmach Industries Company, the biggest builder of New York coin-operated laundries.
The five boroughs of New York have as many as 8,000 laundromats. During the last five years a growing number have installed television sets, built seating areas and hired full-time attendants, Mr. Sussman said.
Some laundromat owners are unhappy about having to compete in businesses unrelated to cleaning clothes. Michael Brusco, the owner of West 79th Street Laundromat, is worried about the competition he will soon receive from Videotown Laundrette.
''If you have a Laundromat, you should stay with a Laundromat; if you have a video store, you should stay with video,'' he said. But, he said, he might diversify if that is what his customers want.
One laundry owner who pays a man to clean three of his New York operations is skeptical about the expense of attendants.
''There's an old adage that says, if the place is too clean, you're not making any money,'' he said.
Photos: Videotown Laundrette, opening this month on West 80th Street in Manhattan; Workmen put finishing touches to Videotown Laundrette; Ana Valverde and Jack Moore at the 79th Street Laundromat. (The New York Times/Ruby Washington)
Bradsher, Keith. "Lifestyle; There's More to Coin Laundries Than Just Getting the Wash Done.(Style Desk)." New York Times 7 Jan. 1990. Academic OneFile. Web. 20 Sept. 2010.
Gale Document Number:A175414702