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Know Your Madisonian: Laundromat owner Mark Lessner adjusts during COVID-19 pandemic

From the Know Your Madisonian 2021: Profiles from the Wisconsin State Journal's weekly series series
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Mark Lessner

Like untold numbers of owner-merchants, Mark Lessner, who runs several laundromats in Madison and Edgerton, has had to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you’ve visited a laundromat on Madison’s East Side over the last two decades, chances are you may have washed your clothes at one of Mark Lessner’s establishments.

Lessner, 54, first started out in the laundromat business when he was about 10 years old helping his dad, who owned several businesses in Madison. About 23 years ago, Lessner became an owner himself and eventually purchased a few of his father’s businesses upon the elder’s retirement.

Currently, Lessner owns and operates two Wash Basket laundromats — located on Atlas and Atwood avenues — and East Wash Laundry near East Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street, along with a laundromat in Edgerton. Up until it recently closed, Lessner operated Schenk’s Corner near Winnebago and Second streets.

Can you talk a little about how the pandemic has impacted your businesses and how you’ve had to adjust?

For the most part, we’re off about 20% from our volume pre-pandemic. What I see is our demographic is definitely a lot of service industry individuals that were working six-seven days a week and using the laundromat is a huge time saver. My impression would be that those were the folks that were hit hardest by the pandemic, so either they don’t have as much laundry to do or they’re staying at home and doing laundry there because they have more time or are maybe not comfortable going out into public.

The biggest adjustment is just sanitizing and cleaning the laundromat and using a sanitizing solution on a daily basis.

With regard to Schenk’s Corner, can you provide an update on that business and why it ultimately closed on Dec. 14?

The actual lease was supposed to end in April 2021 without an option to renew or extend, but we were looking at a water heater replacement and it wasn’t going to make it to April. It was kind of a mutual agreement (with the property owner), it works for them and it works for me. From a business standpoint, because we’ve got two other locations within a mile of that one, it just kind of made sense.

What’s your favorite part of your career?

My favorite part of the job is getting to know the customers and the variety of work. Sometimes it’s cleaning, sometimes it’s building maintenance and sometimes you’re wrenching on equipment. If you’ve got adult onset ADD (attention-deficit disorder) like I do, you get a variety of stuff and you’re not doing the same thing for eight hours. I like that part of it.

What’s your least favorite part of the job?

Trying to find that balance of how to deal with folks that are struggling and homeless … it’s how do you compassionately deal with someone that is really struggling, but also maintain your business and look (out) for the safety of your customers that are there? It’s just a constant internal battle. That’s my least favorite because morally it’s just really tough to find a balance of treating people with respect and compassionately and still try to run your operation and make sure everybody is safe and comfortable.

Do you have any memorable interactions with customers?

At one point a gentleman had come in and asked, “Hey, do you have any work for me? Could I help you out doing something?” So I had him help me clean lint out of the dryers and I gave him, like, 10 bucks and didn’t think much of it. He came back probably a year-and-a-half later and thanked me for the work and had kind of turned his life around and was working full time. … You never know what kind of impact you’re going to have when you interact with folks.

And then, with the Schenk’s Corner location, I was approached by a couple of art students maybe 10 years ago and they wanted to do an art install in the laundromat. They did this fabric tapestry and invited their classmates and friends to the opening. So we’re doing this art opening in the laundromat and part of the art display was they had gotten different laundromat quotes from customers and then in the opening they gave people markers and they could put their own little laundromat quotes or stories on the tapestry. Our customers added their stories and we had that in place for probably three or four years.

Any future plans?

We are looking in 2021 at getting into the drop-off laundry, wash and fold service at our East Washington store. We currently do a little commercial laundry for a beauty salon, a vet clinic and a spa, so we’re looking to expand that in 2021.

You never know what kind of impact you’re going to have when you interact with folks.

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