“I came with a scissors and $200. And I didn’t speak English.”
So begins the Homeric immigration tale of 91-year-old Rodi Kouthouridis. She labored in Boston’s sewing factories for years before opening in the Theatre District the first of what would become a small chain of dry cleaners in the downtown, South Boston, and Beacon Hill.
Now, more than a half-century after her arrival, the scissors Kouthouridis brought from her Greek community in Soviet-era Georgia are mounted on the wall of Crown Cleaners at 127 Charles St. But she remains hard at work behind her antique Singer sewing machine, hemming dresses and bantering with her longtime Beacon Hill clientele, an enduring presence in the family dry cleaning business she now runs with her daughter and granddaughter.
“She speaks with her hands, and people love her,” says her granddaughter Rodi Mikelis, 32.
The younger Rodi started her working life as a “roll girl” at the late, lamented Anthony’s Pier 4 restaurant on the South Boston Waterfront — serving popovers to locals and tourists alike — and as a hostess at restaurants in the Theatre District. She joined the family business 10 years ago, initially pitching in when her grandmother broke her hip, and has never left.
“I was already working 12 hours a day,” she says. “I may as well do it for my family,”
Crown Cleaners’ third proprietor — the only one not named Rodi — is Magdaline Mikelis, 73, daughter of Rodi the elder and mother of Rodi the younger. Magdaline is often the first to greet customers descending the steps to the tiny basement establishment with shirts to be pressed, pants to be ironed, towels to be monogrammed, and wedding gowns to be restored.
“We have doctors, lawyers, police, students, all sorts of people,” Magdaline says.
The dry cleaner’s owners aren’t shy about giving their customers — many of them high-powered Beacon Hill professionals — feedback about their wardrobe decisions. The elder Rodi once convinced a Massachusetts General Hospital surgeon not to wear tails to his wedding.
It’s a three-generation, woman-owned business that combines Old World charm and industriousness with an updated approach to marketing. And if you think these mothers and daughters succumb to the stereotype of boisterous familial squabbling, not a chance.
“Greek families are tight-knit; we always get along,” says granddaughter Rodi, who modernized what until recently was a cash-only business, adding social media and a more environmentally friendly cleaning process.
“We have no other employees. There’s nobody I could hire who would do such a good job . . . Even if we don’t agree, at the end of the day we love each other.”
The family has owned the Charles Street shop since the mid-1980s. It’s the last of about a half-dozen dry cleaners once operated by their extended family, and it looks to be still going strong. Some of its most loyal customers are the adult children of original customers.
Granddaughter Rodi is the trio’s technology and marketing whiz — she set up a credit card payment system and showcases Crown Cleaners on Facebook and Instagram to complement the word-of-mouth marketing that carried it through its first four decades — but when things get busy, as they often do, she’s willing to pitch in on the cleaning and alterations.
“I don’t find it beneath me to wash something and press it myself,” she says. “If I have to hem a pair of pants, I’ll do it. But I’d rather Yaya [her grandmother] do it. For her, it’s like breathing.”
One of the younger Rodi’s proudest accomplishments is getting the business right with the environment. She outsourced its old dry cleaning process, which relied on a chemical solvent called perchloroethylene that’s believed to be a carcinogen, to a wholesale cleaner in Allston that features an eco-friendly “clean solution” using a more expensive but nontoxic liquid carbon dioxide cleaning process. Crown Cleaners also uses recyclable garment bags.
“We’re a green company,” she says.
Rodi the younger sometimes suggests that her mother and grandmother might think about downshifting after decades of work. “It’s time for them to enjoy life,” she says.
But the older women show no sign of slowing down.
“I started working as soon as I came here,” says grandmother Rodi. “I never stopped.”