Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Coleen Worrell, buyer of the historic Oxford Laundry in the Baldwin neighborhood. (Photo: Susanne Beck)

Coleen Worrell was barely a glimmer in her parents’ eyes when the movie “Love Story” premiered in 1970. To this day, the energetic 50-year-old from Barbados hasn’t seen the film.

So it was no wonder that when her real estate broker called her in February about a business opportunity – a laundromat for sale at 104 Oxford St., in the Baldwin neighborhood – she didn’t make the connection. That didn’t come until she visited in person with friend and business associate Sonny Franklin to see how the site compared with other business opportunities they were considering, including restaurants, transportation and other laundromat locations.

What they found was the Oxford Laundry, a recently shuttered family business with a shopworn interior that, according to city records, first opened in the 1950s. It was best known for its cameo in the blockbuster “Love Story,” based on Harvard graduate Erich Segal’s tale of star-crossed love between rich and poor Harvard and Radcliffe students. Some of the movie’s key scenes were shot at Harvard and in the Baldwin neighborhood – including at 104 Oxford, then the Gold Star Laundry. Segal’s novel spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list; the film went on to break 1970s box office records and get seven Academy Award nominations, winning the Oscar for Best Original Score.

The Oxford Laundry announced its Hollywood cameo in a sign posted in the front window. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Franklin is just enough older than Worrell to have seen “Love Story” when he was younger. “It was a few years back,” he said, chuckling, “but just a few years.” He understood the nostalgic pull of the film, particularly to area residents. When he and Worrell approached the property near the corner of Sacramento Street, he saw the faded “This laundromat was in the movie ‘Love Story’” sign in the window and knew they were on to something good. (The whereabouts of the original “Gold Star Laundry” business sign, which was propped up on washing machines in the property, is unknown.)

“I took one look and said, wow,” Franklin said. “We’ve come from nowhere and we end up right here. If that’s not the sign of a supreme architect, I don’t know what is. So right then, I said to Coleen, ‘Coleen, there’s a reason we have been placed here.’”

A vintage Oxford Laundry sign is expected to be part of the furnishings in a refreshed shop. (Photo: Susanne Beck)

Worrell agreed, and within days a lease was signed.

East Coast Laundromat – the site’s working name, in honor of Worrell’s hometown on the east coast of Barbados – has a target opening this summer in the weeks before students return.

Necessary renovations include replacing many of the machines (some of the dryers were left in poor condition, filled with lint), redoing the floors, fixing the electrical system, doing a deep clean and gutting the bathroom (“left in horrible condition”), Worrell said. “We will improve as we go,” she said. “People are dying for this place to reopen.” She is considering adding dry cleaning services at some point, and possibly some new machines in the back room. Laundry pickup and drop-off is planned – likely to go over well with busy students.

The Oxford Laundry’s wall of books will stay under new ownership. (Photo: Susanne Beck)

Loyal customers will still find many of the features they have long enjoyed. “The sitting area will stay, and we will keep the library space,” including the same selection of books on hand when the store closed months ago, Worrell said. “The previous owners left them for us, along with [a vintage] Oxford Laundry sign that we will put up somewhere.”

Taking the lead

The laundry is just the latest venture for Worrell. From her Dorchester High School days when she reigned as the state record holder for the girls’ 100-yard dash to her decadeslong career as child care provider and director, she has shown a competitive drive tempered by compassion.

In addition to her prowess at the track – “I still run two or three times a week” – Worrell founded a liturgical dance studio called Prophetic Move Dance and a design label for women, Elegant Wear In Style Every Day (EWISE). She finds time to care for a man who has multiple sclerosis and spoil her 4-year-old Lhasa apso, Freeway (named after the dog in her favorite television show, “Hart to Hart”).

Worrell also oversees large-scale gospel performances in venues such as Boston College High School and Boston’s Reggie Lewis Center. Does she perform? “Singing is not my thing,” she said.

Coming from an extended family of 14, Worrell said she is accustomed to taking the lead and making things happen. While Franklin said he is the one who always dreamed of owning a laundromat – as a child he was tasked with ironing school uniforms for himself and his siblings, and during a 20-plus-year career in the U.S. Navy, he often washed his own clothes – Worrell is the sole proprietor. Franklin will be in a customer service role, overseeing laundry operations during the day.

Manager with a warm smile

Coleen Worrell with the new manager of the reopening laundromat, Sonny Franklin. (Photo: Susanne Beck)

Franklin said he had done enough research on the Baldwin neighborhood before the lease was signed to know it was a tight-knit community with a mix of younger families and older, long-term residents, and near a potentially lucrative customer base of college students and postgrads. Worrell has followed up, developing connections with area colleges and letting them know about the reopening and services.

Franklin has connected with area residents, likely drawn to his warm smile and easy banter – a welcome shift in tone from prior years, according to Yelp posts. Among those Franklin has spoken to was a young woman who lives in the area who told him her grandparents were in the 1970 movie. “She said she would come back after we opened with her dog so I can find out more,” he said. “But everyone has said welcome, it’s a wonderful place.” Then with a laugh, he added: “And they all keep saying ‘You are sitting on a gold mine!’”

Worrell is considering showing “Love Story” when she opens, though with so much work to do on refreshing the laundry, details are scant. While it may not be her favorite right now – Worrell said she’s more into “The Lord of the Rings” – she may feel otherwise after watching her customers’ reactions and discovering for herself the movie’s admittedly dated charm, now that she has a stake in keeping its memories alive.