Except for the mouse pad on his desk which has an image of a piano keyboard, a visitor to Parkway Custom Drycleaning of Washington, D.C. might not have a clue that Jon Simon, Parkway’s owner, is an acclaimed musician.
It’s a small detail, but telling, because Simon–a Rochester native and former Eastman Community Music School student whose grandfather co-founded Germanow-Simon Corp, is that rare individual who excels in two disparate fields, in this case music– composing and jazz piano; and business–dry cleaning.
On the music side, Simon has toured widely performing music from his nine recordings, including five jazz interpretations of melodies from the Jewish tradition (“Hannukah and All That Jazz”); Beatles tunes (“Beatles on Ivory”), and songs from stage and screen. He’s appeared at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, an Inaugural Gala for President Clinton, and at concert halls, jazz clubs, and community centers throughout North America. The Washington Post has called Simon’s music “harmonically sophisticated and hauntingly beautiful.”
On the business side, Parkway is not your neighborhood drop shop. Since he bought it in 2001, Simon has built Parkway into a $4 million a year business catering to an affluent and discriminating clientele. Shirts start at $4.95; sweaters at $25; blouses at $25.95; two-piece suits at $45 (pickup and delivery included). Parkway has also developed a specialty in handling historic and priceless items, among them drapes from the White House and foreign embassies, the baseball uniform of Yankee great Lou Gehrig, and the flag that adorns Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre.
Recently, Simon gave me a tour of Parkway’s industrial-size plant in the D.C. suburb of North Bethesda, Maryland. Afterwards, in his office, we spoke of how he has worked to find balance between the two fields he loves and excels at—music and business– and the necessary trade-offs he, and many artists, make in their careers.
An edited transcript of our interview follows. But first, some background.
The Simon family has deep roots in Rochester. In 1916, Jon Simon’s grandfather, Julius Simon, and business partner Harry Germanow, founded a small machine shop in Rochester. During World War I, when they learned U.S. troops at the front were breaking the glass crystals on their wristwatches, they invented and became a major supplier of plastic replacement watch crystals. Eventually, Germanow-Simon Corp. became the world’s largest manufacturer of plastic watch crystals and high-precision plastic lenses for industry.
Jon Simon, the eldest of four children of Leonard and Elaine Simon, grew up in Brighton and Pittsford, and attended Pittsford Sutherland High School. He showed an early talent for music. During high school, he took classes at Eastman, studying music theory, piano, and percussion. He played in a jazz band conducted by Chuck Mangione. Intending to pursue a music career, he enrolled at the University of Michigan School of Music.
At Michigan, Simon composed and produced a “jazz rock musical” based on “The Birds,” by Greek playwright, Aristophanes. He had planned, after his sophomore year, to transfer to the University of Southern California to study film scoring. But during that summer, his parents took him and his three sisters to Israel and while there he had what he describes as an epiphany. “If I pursued a music career,” he asked himself, “would I ever be able to take my family on a nice trip like this? Could I afford it? Would I even have the time?”
At that moment, recalls Simon, he realized: “I’ll always have music, but it doesn’t have to be my life.”
With the intent to join the family business, Simon cancelled plans for USC, stayed at Michigan, and switched his major to industrial engineering. After graduation, he earned a master’s degree from Harvard Business School and worked in Boston for a couple of years. Later, he did join the family business—working as plant manager of the plastics division—but after three years decided he wanted to pursue other ventures.
Married by then, Simon relocated to Washington, D.C., where his wife, Karen, worked for Voice of America. There, Simon worked in senior management positions with several firms, including internet startups, but eventually decided he wanted to be his own boss and started looking for a business to buy. A business broker pitched him Parkway.
“No second grader says, ‘I want to work in dry cleaning when I grow up,” Simon recently told the Harvard Business School alumni magazine.
But he saw in Parkway an intriguing opportunity. It was a family-owned business, operating since 1926, and with an excellent reputation. Having run the manufacturing side of his family’s business, he wasn’t intimidated by the complexity of a large operation with many employees and lots of moving parts, all requiring attention to detail. The opportunities to increase quality and efficiency through advanced computerization also appealed. He bought the business.
Ironically, those years of finding his footing in business overlapped with years in which Simon also made his biggest strides as a composer and performer. In 1986, he made his first recording of original compositions. This was soon followed by five recordings of jazz interpretations of music from the Jewish heritage. These proved popular, as did his improvisational covers of Beatles songs, and show tunes, and Simon began extensive touring.
“I’d sometimes play to audiences of up to 3,000 people, and then sell another thousand CDs afterwards,” he recalls. “I could make $4,000 dollars in an evening.”
At his peak, he was doing about two dozen shows a year across the country.
But with demands of the business and a growing family, Simon’s concerts gradually declined to about half a dozen a year before Covid, and just one or two since.
“I didn’t have the desire or need to tour,” he says, “so I didn’t aggressively pursue it.”
Parkway, on the other hand, was thriving. Simon increased full-time staff to 25, upgraded computer systems, bought five vehicles for pick-up and delivery, and in 2020 moved the plant to a renovated 10,000 square foot industrial space in North Bethesda.
Today, Parkway looks nothing like a typically cramped neighborhood cleaner. The airy, high-ceilinged front room has three counter positions where customers drop off clothes and discuss their garments with the staff. Nearby are three sewing machines where seamstresses do repairs and alterations. In a seated waiting area, racks of luxury lifestyle magazines and the catalogs of high-end clothing retailers reflect Parkway’s affluent clientele.
Inside the plant, as Simon walked me passed rack after rack of clear plastic garment bags holding wedding gowns, dress suits, and expensive shirts—some of them costing $500 or more, he told me—I found myself scanning the customer tags for names of Washington celebs I might recognize.
“Do some of these clothes below to people whose names I know or who I might recognize by sight?” I ask Simon.
“Sure,” says Simon. “Some belong to senators, ambassadors, TV news commentators, sports figures–but if I told you any of their names, I’d have to shoot you.”
He takes seriously, Simon explains, his responsibility to maintain the “confidentiality of customers’ clothes.” (Later, he did tell me that Parkway cleaned the curtains at the home of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)
Toward the back of the plant were enormous cleaning machines, a climate-controlled storage vault filled to the ceiling with furs, wool suits and sweaters, and other off-season clothing; and pressors and spotters—some of them employed at Parkway for more than 25 years– working on individual garments. All around were specialty items waiting to be cleaned: Oriental carpets, heavy draperies, delicate shades, and upholstered dining room chairs. In one corner was a menagerie of taxidermic animals: a leopard, a water buffalo, an adult antelope and three babies, and the head of a zebra. These, Simon explained, were brought in by “an African big game hunter” who had a house fire and needed the skins cleaned and made odorless. Parkway has a special “ozone room” that removes smoke odor.
Later, we sit in Simon’s office, which looks out onto the production floor. Despite the haute couture all around, he was dressed simply in jeans and a sweater. At 66, he remains slender and trim with a full head of hair graying just a bit at the sides. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
ROCHESTER BEACON: OK, so I’ve never understood “dry cleaning.” Is it really dry, and if so, how do the clothes get clean?
JON SIMON: It’s a misnomer. It’s not that it’s dry, it just means we don’t use water-based solvents. But we do use other solvents. Our preferred one is sugar cane based, which is eco-friendly. There are other additives in it, but the core chemistry is from sugar cane extract.
If a cleaner is still using Perchloroethylene (“perc”), I wouldn’t use them. It’s the most environmentally hazardous solvent in use today and most cleaners still use it because it requires less hand spotting and pre- and post-cleaning, and they have an investment in a very expensive ($75-100k) machine that cannot be converted to another more eco-friendly solvent.
ROCHESTER BEACON: I read you once personally cleaned the drapes in the Oval Office. True?
SIMON: About three summers ago, during the Trump administration, I did personally help on that job. It took about four hours just for the inspection of our vehicles and equipment at an off-site military base–escorted by Secret Service the whole time– before we could even enter the White House.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Did working at your family business prepare you for managing a dry cleaning company?
SIMON: It did, but there’s an important difference between this plant and a plant making a thousand watch crystals where each is identical. Here, we have a thousand shirts, but none are identical. Even if there are two Brooks Brothers shirts, this is size 50, and this is size 30; this the guy spilled ketchup on this and this the guy perspired on; this has a broken button and needs repair, and this one doesn’t. Every item is unique, and that’s the challenge.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you still regularly play piano?
SIMON: I do. I’ve still got my Steinway at home. And we have a second house on the Eastern shore (of Maryland) where I’ve got a baby electric grand which I also love to play. But it’s not like I go home every night after work and play because often I’m kind of drained, but I still love to play and find time to do it, especially on weekends.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Your jazz compositions are all about improvisation. Do you ever find you can apply those skills of improvisation in your business?
SIMON: Absolutely. Come out here. I’ll show you how I improvise at Parkway.
(Simon ushered me out of his office to an area nearby with garment racks. On one rack, he held up a small plastic bag with an orange tag that said “Thursday.”)
This is a weird improvisation, but when somebody has an expensive shirt—like a $500 shirt—it may have actual metal collar stays, not your basic plastic stays. When we clean the shirt we take the stays out, but my baggers were forgetting to later put the stays back in the same shirts.
Just today I came up with this idea—we’re testing it out– when the shirts come in our people are gonna take out the stays and put ‘em in a plastic bag with a ticket marked with the due date and if there’s a special stay, we also place the orange flag on the shirt to marry the shirt with the stays. Here are two in this bag marked “Thursday.” Next Thursday when they bag those shirts the special stay will be right there. It’s a minor thing, not as much fun as playing jazz piano, but it is improv.
ROCHESTER BEACON: There’s a long tradition of musicians, writers, and poets balancing their artistic pursuits with conventional careers that offer more stable income and lifestyle. For example, (novelist) Herman Melville was deputy customs inspector at the Port of New York, (Russian composer) Borodin was a chemist—
SIMON: And (American composer) Charles Ives owned an insurance agency.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Exactly.
SIMON: Life is trade-offs. I love my life. I love my family. I love that I could build this business that I’ve built. It’s allowed me to put three kids through college and to have great experiences, including wonderful trips—like climbing the summit at Kilimanjaro. We’re going to go this summer to Sicily with the kids, on back roads, biking and hiking.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, any regrets about not having pursued a concert career?
SIMON: Every now and then I think I could have done it and been successful. You always fantasize. Had I gone to USC, it was around the time Steven Spielberg was there. Would I have been his John Williams? No, I’m not John Williams, but with a lot of musical ideas and discipline, you never know.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Any advice for young music students just starting out?
SIMON: What is your goal? Start with that. You can touch a lot of lives by teaching students at college or being the band director at a high school or giving private lessons. But other than that –or being at a top philharmonic orchestra although I’m not sure how much they even make—the only way musicians make money today is by touring and performing. And not to burst your bubble, but if you want to make it as a performing musician, you’re going to have to pay some dues. It might start at little clubs and you’re in a frickin’ van going from Toledo one day to somewhere else in Ohio the next. You might get incredibly lucky but the chances of becoming a breakout headliner are about like if you’re a really good high school football player of getting into the NFL—maybe one in a thousand.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you get back to Rochester much? Any special places you like to visit?
SIMON: I do, but mostly it’s just to see family. Usually, it’s a Jewish holiday or a birthday and we’re just in for the weekend. My sister lives near Cobbs Hill so the most we’ll do is go up there and take a walk around the reservoir. My parents have a cottage on Canandaigua Lake, and we enjoy going there, too.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You’ve probably given some thought to the future of Parkway. Are any of your kids interested in the business?
SIMON: We’ve talked about it and for the moment they’re not. We’ve got three kids, 34 to 29. They all live up in Brooklyn and they’re all in creative fields. My oldest son is a music agent. My daughter works as a project manager in a P.R. firm, and my youngest son is creative director for an advertising firm where he’ll direct commercials. At the moment, they’re happy.
ROCHESTER BEACON: If you were to someday sell the business, would you play concerts again?
SIMON: Possibly. The last concert I was scheduled to play was going to be at the Rochester JCC, but it got cancelled due to COVID. If I was retired? Probably I would put more time into the music and perform again. I’m not a golfer. I don’t play golf; I play music.
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.