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    Abrupt closure of Zoots dry-cleaning chain leaves customers hanging

    Wellesley, MA - 5/14/08 - Zoots employee Miguel Montalvo (cq) retrieves a customers dry cleaning at Zoots on Washington St. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff; section: Business; Slug: 15zoots; reporter: Abelson) Library Tag 05152008 National/Foreign
    MARK WILSON/GLOBE STAFF/2008 FILE PHOTO
    Zoots employee Miguel Montalvo retrieves a customers dry cleaning at Zoots on Washington Street in 2008.

    Srilatha Rajamani wasn’t planning to buy her daughter an entirely new winter wardrobe before bringing her back to New York University this semester.

    But the Cambridge resident has been busy shopping since she learned that the Zoots dry cleaning chain filed for bankruptcy last week, shutting the doors to its Porter Square store without any way for Rajamani or her daughter to pick up their items.

    “We had to shop for sweaters and such again because she literally had no winter clothes,” said Rajamani, who received e-mail notification that the clothes were ready for pick-up on the same day as the bankruptcy filing. “The new semester started this week.”

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    Customers have been complaining about garments being held hostage since learning Jan. 19 that the Brockton-based dry cleaning chain had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and abruptly closed all 17 of its stores, leaving customers’ clothes locked inside.

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     So far, Zoots has responded only with vague assurances that items will be returned within the next few days.

    “Please be patient as plans are being made to get your garments back to you. You will get further information via e-mail and notices . . . posted at our stores,” the company wrote in a statement posted on its Facebook page last week that has since been taken down.

    Zoots locations are spread throughout Central and Eastern Massachusetts, including stores in Worcester, Beverly, Waltham, and two locations in Wellesley.

    In Methuen, local police took possession of some garments in response to customer concerns that items in a location there were being left in an unlocked front entrance.

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    An attorney representing Zoots, Troy D. Morrison of Morrison & Associates, said in an e-mail Saturday that despite the company’s “best efforts to continue operations, including entertaining offers from several potential buyers, the company was forced to file for protection under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code.”

    The company listed assets below $50,000, and debts between $1 million and $10 million, according to the filing. Under Chapter 7, a company typically liquidates its assets and the money is used to help pay creditors.

    The state attorney general’s office is closely monitoring the situation and expects the company to move quickly to return garments to customers, according to spokeswoman Emalie Gainey.

    Meanwhile, Zoots employees are still waiting for their last two weeks of pay. 

    Tammy Blanchard, a 44-year-old Millbury resident and former Zoots customer service associate, worked part time at the Framingham and Bellingham locations. She had been promised a full-time position at the Marlboro store since October, she said, but nothing ever came of it.

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    “I stayed and patiently waited,” Blanchard said. “Each month [there was] some reason why they couldn’t open.” 

    ‘For special reasons, the judge can allow us to continue to operate for a short period of time.’

    Blanchard said she received a direct deposit on the day Zoots shut down, but it was deducted from her account five days later. 

    David Madoff, a private trustee appointed by a branch of the US Department of Justice to the Zoots case Friday, said that Harpers Payroll Services Inc. reversed the payments because Zoots never provided them with funds, estimated at $80,000. He said he is investigating the legality of Harpers’ actions. 

    “I am confident that everyone will get their garments back,” Madoff said. It’s the paychecks that he can’t promise.

    To Madoff’s knowledge, Mutual One Bank is Zoots’ only secured creditor, meaning only it is guaranteed to receive collateral — all other unsecured creditors will be compensated in order of priority, he said. Employees will be first in line, and are otherwise protected under the Massachusetts Wage Act.

    In the meantime, Madoff filed an emergency motion Tuesday night in the hopes of temporarily reopening locations in order to return garments to their rightful owners. A hearing on the motion was set for Jan. 25.

    “For special reasons, the judge can allow us to continue to operate for a short period of time,” said Madoff, adding that because the customers missing garments are estimated to be in the hundreds, it’s likely the judge will grant the motion. 

    Once granted, the Zoots Delivery Hub in Brockton will be reopened on a specific schedule decided by the court, along with seven undisclosed Zoots locations, at which point customers can pick up their items, he said. 

    Margeaux Sippell can be reached at Margeaux.Sippell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @margeauxsippell