NAUGATUCK — Rocco DeCarlo, Jr. looked over a dress with a customer Monday afternoon at DeCarlo’s Thrifty Cleaners and Formal Wear before wishing her a good day. It was probably the last time he would see that particular customer.
After 65 years of cleaning everything from suits to dresses to blankets, DeCarlo’s Thrifty Cleaners and Formal Wear will close its doors at the end of the year.
“It’s a bittersweet thing for me to close,” said DeCarlo, who owns the business at 535 South Main St.
DeCarlo, a 69-year-old Naugatuck native, has been involved in the business since his father, Rocco DeCarlo, Sr., opened it in 1950 a little further down South Main Street. He said the cleaning service was a huge hit in the borough from the beginning.
“We used to have two pick-up and delivery trucks on the road in the 1960s. We were the only cleaner on this side of Naugatuck. There was another cleaner on the other side of town. We basically were very busy during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s,” DeCarlo said.
When the factories began to close in the 1980s, DeCarlo said, business began to decrease.
“Uniroyal started eliminating the jobs in town, so business started slowing down. It wasn’t like it used to be. But we sustained here until this year, and I decided to retire,” DeCarlo said.
DeCarlo said he decided to retire because he’s getting older and the rising costs associated with running a business.
“The taxes in Naugatuck are way too high and unfortunately you can’t make a living profit anymore. So I just decided to actually retire,” DeCarlo said.
Having spent much of his life at the business, DeCarlo’s mind is full of memories. His fondest memories are of the customers he has met throughout the years and the customers he continues to meet.
“Even the customers we have today, they are very disappointed that we are closing because they don’t know exactly what they are going to do and where to go,” DeCarlo said.
Over the years, DeCarlo has experienced the ups and downs of ever-changing fashions.
In the 1970s, when disco was popular and the movie “Saturday Night Fever” was a hit, people began switching over from cotton shirts to shirts made from a plastic material, DeCarlo said.
This proved to be a challenge for dry cleaners like DeCarlo.
“As far as the machinery we were using on them, you couldn’t process them because they would actually melt,” DeCarlo said.
DeCarlo stopped accepting shirts at the time, he said.
The decision led to an expansion of the business.
In 1978, to help offset the income lost from no longer cleaning shirts, DeCarlo began to rent formal wear out of the shop.
The idea proved to be a hit, DeCarlo said, especially during prom season. The shop drew students from Naugatuck and the surrounding communities.
“Only because of our reputation would they come here. They would drive a little bit more, but they wouldn’t have to deal with going to the mall with all the traffic and trying to find a parking place,” DeCarlo said.
DeCarlo wasn’t the only one to grow up in the shop. His son, Dave DeCarlo, 37, who works with his father, also has memories of being a young boy at the dry cleaners.
Dave DeCarlo recalled his grandfather, who served as a burgess and on numerous boards and commissions in Naugatuck, talking about politics with residents in the shop.
“This place used to be a political pow-wow,” Dave DeCarlo recalled. “I just remember that people would come here and sit for hours talking to my grandfather. I used get a kick out of it, being 7 or 8 years old and seeing all these guys get into screaming matches over local politics. They were friendly, but they just disagreed. I wish it was like that nowadays, without all the mudslinging. You could disagree and go have a beer.”
Dave DeCarlo said once the shop closes he plans on moving south. His father has no set plans, but hopes to move out of state, as well.
“I’m hoping to settle up on the building. I’m not exactly sure what I am going to do with it. Possibly rent it, sell it, or lease it,” Rocco DeCarlo said. “Primarily I am just going to enjoy life. I’m not looking to do anything specific. If something comes along and I am bored, I’ll think about it.”
Both Rocco and Dave DeCarlo said the thought of leaving the town and business they grew up in saddens them.
“There are a lot of memories here. But it’s just not the same town it was 20 years ago,” Dave DeCarlo said.
As his dry cleaning days come to an end, Rocco DeCarlo thanked all of his customers over the years.
“It’s with heavy heart we are closing. We really thank our customers over the many years for their loyal patronage and for their friendship,” Rocco DeCarlo said.