MANCHESTER — An elderly driver pulled into A & A Dry Cleaners Inc. more than a year ago and never stopped. The Subaru Outback rammed the brick-and-glass front facade, cut through the front counter and barreled 45 feet through the store — dropping clothing racks like tin pins. It stopped when it hit the back wall — its engine still revving and ruined clothes spinning in its wheels.
Grateful neither the four staffers nor driver, Abigail Bennett, 74, suffered more than scrapes and scares, co-owner Marcia Harrington, 63, looked around the 1019 Hanover St. business she and her husband, James, 64, have run for 37 years.
"'Oh, my God! My business is destroyed.' Those were my first words," Harrington said of the Dec. 13, 2012, crash.
Instead, the destruction ended being a breakthrough for the second-generation dry cleaners — enabling the Harringtons to convert to an organic dry cleaner, possibly becoming the first in Manchester to do all its "green cleaning" on premises rather than ship clothes to Massachusetts.
"Fast forward a year later, and everything turned out wonderful and business is better than ever," Marcia Harrington said.
Bennett, who apparently suffered a medical condition, lodged her car in the dry cleaning machine against the back wall. Thankfully, the solvent holding tanks hadn't ruptured. But the machine — a capital investment that costs $60,000 and up — is the heart of the business.
It was toast.
The Harringtons turned the loss into their opportunity to meet a looming federal guideline that requires small dry cleaners in residential buildings to convert to machines that use organic solvents by 2020.
A 2006 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule requires dry cleaners to phase out those that use tetrachloroethylene — also known as perchloroethylene, or perc.
Two years ago, the EPA posted its final health assessment on perc characterizing it as a "likely human carcinogen." The EPA said it does not believe wearing dry-cleaned clothes will result in exposure levels which pose a risk of concern. But it has taken steps to reduce exposure through clean air standards and the phase-out of machines that use perc.
Working behind a boarded-up storefront for more than 10 weeks, the Harringtons continued to take in cleaning, but had items cleaned by a "friendly competitor" while they did the pressing in house.
"We didn't want to close down because we didn't want our customers to go elsewhere. We didn't know how long it would take," Marcia Harrington said.
Meanwhile, workers gutted and renovated the interior of the shop while the couple waited for their new organic dry cleaning machine to arrive from Italy. Their insurance covered most of the costs, she said.
It's been a year since A & A Dry Cleaners reopened with a sign announcing they are an organic dry cleaner using a solvent called SYSTEMK4. They also have a website advertising their "gone green" status.
"Business has improved," Harrington said. "The younger generation seems to like it."
"I'm a big advocate of helping the environment in any way that we can. If every dry cleaner used green solvents, that would be wonderful. It's safer for people. It's safer for the environment. And it's better for the world," she added.
Another benefit of going green is the Harringtons have been reclassified from a hazardous materials producer to a non-hazardous materials producer.
Marcia and James Harrington took over the business that Marcia's parents, Ace and the late Alice Mavrogeorge, started in 1967 as a One Hour Martinizing franchise in what is now East Side Plaza. Her parents ran the franchise for 13 years before they bought the 1019 Hanover St. lot and built the store that would become A & A Dry Cleaners.
When the shop was open for business again, Harrington said she brought her father, now 92 and suffering from Parkinson's disease, in for a look.
"I brought him into the store in his wheelchair so he could see all the new things," she said.