When Charles Kwon’s parents bought a dry-cleaning operation in 1989, business was booming: Loyal customers regularly hauled in armloads of two-piece suits, dress shirts and all manner of women’s work attire. In the years since, Kwon relocated from Downers Grove to a better location off Route 59 in Naperville. But right now, he’s one of the many dry-cleaning operators across Illinois — and probably the nation — hanging on by a thread.

On a recent afternoon, the 55-year-old business owner was grateful to see a lone regular bring in 15 shirts to be laundered and pressed. “He’s coming … about once a month,” Kwon noted with a rueful laugh.

Also the executive director of the Illinois Korean-American Drycleaners Association, Kwon has been watching the industry shrink gradually since its peak around 1999, when he counted 1,900 members, compared to just 360 today. According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees dry-cleaning operators in this state, 611 facilities are licensed to operate in 2021. Despite the industry’s decline over the years, Kwon did not expect to see business fall off a cliff as abruptly as it did when Illinois’ first stay-at-home order took effect last March. Immediately after, traffic to his own store fell by 90%, Kwon estimates.

Picture Source: Odette Yousef

SOURCE ( Odette Yousef /WBEZ Chicago)