Positive Energy + Clean clothes

Can a laundromat lift people’s spirits? The customers of Amherst Eco Laundry believe it can.

  • “We didn’t buy this laundromat to be rich,” said Khalsa. “We bought it as a service to the community.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Khalsa and his wife donate a portion of the laundromat’s revenue to the nonprofit Charity: Water. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sirinam S. Khalsa, owner of Amherst Eco Laundry talks about the business. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A mural done by owner Sirinam S. Khalsa, of Amherst Eco Laundry is on the wall in the back of the laundry mat.

  • Sirinam S. Khalsa, owner of Amherst Eco Laundry talks about the business. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Szymon Plebaniak, looks at the Friendsheep dryer balls as an alternative to dryer sheets while doing his laundry at Amherst Eco Laundry. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The laundromat uses Friendsheep wool dryer balls as an eco-friendly alternative to dryer sheets. Staff Photo/ CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sirinam S. Khalsa, owner of Amherst Eco Laundry talks about the Friendsheep dryer balls as an alternative to dryer sheets while Szymon Plebaniak, a customer doing his laundry, listens. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Szymon Plebaniak, doing his laundry at Amherst Eco Laundry. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • SiriNam Khalsa, owner of Amherst Eco Laundry, talks with customer Jane Pemberton. She had stopped by to drop off flowers to thank Khalsa's wife for helping carry her laundry to the car. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amherst Eco Laundry owned by Sirinam S. Khalsa. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Roger Hughes moved up from Florida in June and regularly does his laundry here. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sirinam S. Khalsa, owner of Amherst Eco Laundry talks about the business. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sirinam S. Khalsa, owner of Amherst Eco Laundry talks about the business. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kelly Foster of Amherst finishes taking out a load of laundry at Amherst Eco Laundry.  Photo by Chris Goudreau—

  • Clara Joe Fisher, 83 of Amherst, said her dryer recently broke. Now she and her husband come to Amherst Eco Laundry while they decide whether to buy a new dryer.  Photo by Chris Goudreau—

  • Cover image.  Photo by Chris Goudreau—

  • Jonah Glickman (left) folds laundry while Clara Joe Fisher checks on her load.  STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS GOUDREAU

Published: 11/2/2018 12:50:15 PM

A laundromat could be considered a microcosm of humanity, where people from different backgrounds and walks of life bond over a shared need — clean clothes.

Kelly Foster of Amherst, who was loading a basket of clothes into a washing machine at Amherst Eco Laundry on Tuesday, started coming here to do laundry when her family of four made way for her father-in-law to move in with them. 

“He’s not feeling well, so we moved him from South Carolina to Amherst,” said Foster, 45, adding that her father-in-law has pulmonary fibrosis. They traded their laundry facilities for a handicap-accessible bathroom, so their washer and dryer are in limbo, for now. “They’re in my hallway waiting to be hooked up down in the cellar,” she explained, “So, I’m counting on this particular laundromat.” 

Foster has two teenage sons and a husband, David, who works as an Amherst police officer. At one point last week, she said, she had 25 loads running here simultaneously.

“I got everything done at once,” Foster said. “I had basically the entire laundromat going.” 

As the name indicates, the laundromat aims to provide an environmentally friendly approach to laundry and dry cleaning.

The business — located on College Street — offers onsite and drop-off service for laundry as well as chemical-free dry cleaning services, and only uses detergents that are biodegradable and environmentally friendly, said SiriNam Khalsa, who co-owns the business with his wife, Kirn.

Khalsa said they decided to bring an environmental approach to their business based on personal beliefs, which align with Sikh religious practices.

“Sikhism is a path that honors mother Earth; to take care of mother Earth as well as animals and plants on mother Earth,” he said. “You can see what’s happening on the Earth. Things are changing and every little bit helps. That’s what I believe. We’re doing our little part here by not putting chemicals back into the water when we do the laundry and trying to have high-efficiency machines that don’t use a lot of water.”

Sitting in a box near the customer service window are “Friendsheep” wool dryer balls — another way that Amherst Eco Laundry lives up to its name.

“You don’t have to use Downy, which is not biodegradable,” Khalsa said. “You don’t have to use all of those dryer sheets, which to me is a waste of material. You can use these wool balls. When people drop off their laundry, this is what we use exclusively. And it takes out the static and also helps with the wrinkles in sheets.”

A portion of the laundromat’s revenue is also donated to the New York-based nonprofit, Charity: Water, which helps provide clean and safe drinking water to developing countries across the world.

The customers who come here are varied —  from college students to people on a fixed income; as well as men and women of different ages, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. 

Szyman Plebaniak, a 21-year-old economics student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he visits on a regular basis to wash his clothes.

“It’s always nice coming in here because you can always have a nice conversation with someone,” he said.

Both Plebaniak and Jonah Glickman, who is also a 21-year-old UMass student studying economics, say that bringing their laundry to Amherst Eco Laundry is both affordable and practical for them as college students.

“I think this is a valuable asset in a community,” said Clara Joe Fisher, 83, of Amherst. Fisher said her dryer broke, and she and her husband are unsure if they will be buying a replacement. 

“You know, my mother died when I was 10, and I’ve been washing clothes forever and ever. I grew up with clotheslines and a ringer machine. I just think these new machines are wondrous things,” she said. 

Roger Hughes, 45 of Belchertown, who moved to Massachusetts from Florida in June, said he lives with his wife and daughter and regularly does their laundry at Amherst Eco Laundry. He thinks often times there’s a stereotype of laundromats being grim places, and Amherst Eco Laundry defies that stereotype.

“It’s clean and nice and the owner is awesome,” he said. “There’s always a couple of ladies who work here that are nice and chatty … It’s not like a dingy laundromat where you’re scared to go in or talk to anybody. It’s very friendly.”

SiriNam and Kirn, who live in Leverett, opened Amherst Eco Laundry earlier this year after purchasing the business from Chong and Nancy  Song, who ran Amherst Laundry for 25 years.  

“We didn’t buy this laundromat to be rich,” Khalsa said. “We bought it as a service to the community and to make some extra income because we have kids going to college, but also to help people feel good about something they have to do all of the time — wash laundry and dry clean … We try to keep our prices low because we know every quarter helps.”

Khalsa has been in education for the past 30 years as a teacher and an instructional coach for middle school teachers in the Springfield Public Schools. He’s semi-retired now, working with Springfield teachers three days a week, but has always wanted to open a small business. 

In addition to renovating the space — ceilings, floors, the bathroom, installing butcher block-topped tables — Khalsa said that one of the first changes he made was replacing some of the older washer units with energy-efficient models that use less water.

They also focused on a more user-friendly experience.

“You had to get quarters from the previous owners, so we immediately put in a coin machine. If someone didn’t have detergent, [customers] would have to buy it from [the former owners]. We put in a detergent machine. We wanted it to be more interdependent rather than dependent on us,” Khalsa said.

Nor did he want to be dependent on someone else to service the equipment. “One of the learning curves is that to manage a good laundromat, you have to know the machines. There’s a lot of repairs that you can do yourself.”

For the future, Khalsa also plans on upgrading the remaining washers, replacing them with modern units. He also continues to hone his folding skills.

“We have a large drop-off service, and my wife is very good at it,” he said. “I had to work at it.”

At the back of the laundromat is a mural that Khalsa painted with a friend before he re-opened the business in May. The mural is bright and colorful, with trees blossoming with multi-colored spheres of energy swirling around the branches. The mural reflects the underlying philosophy of Amherst Eco Laundry.

“It reminds me that we’re all part of the Earth,” Khalsa said. “There’s always energy going around and how we use it depends on how aware we are of [our role] of helping to preserve the things that are important on mother Earth.”

Light jazz music was playing over the low, soft rumble of the machines when Jane Pemberton of Pelham stopped by to give Khalsa a pot of sunshine yellow chrysanthemums for his wife.

“She was very kind the other day and carried things out for me because I have this silly cane for the moment,” said Pemberton, who wanted to thank Kirn for bringing her laundry to her car.

“I think the eco part of it is very nice and the staff is wonderful,” she added. “Everything is perfect from what I see here.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

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