Curran organizes operation to retrieve stranded clothes

Attorney general acts after cleaners' bankruptcy

February 20, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

You could call it a clothes call.

When Finesse Tailors & Cleaners abruptly shut its doors in Perry Hall six weeks ago after declaring bankruptcy, dozens of customers had expensive suits, favorite dresses and must-have jackets locked inside the darkened shop.

But in an unusual action yesterday morning, Finesse reopened for a one-time, four-hour, get-it-while-you-can opportunity to reunite owner and outfit after the business was ordered to do so by the state attorney general's office.

Marlene Riggio picked up $1,000 worth of her family's shirts, pants and suits.

Dot Liberatore got back her special Christmas dress suit.

And Francis Friedel retrieved his daughter's wool coat, which has been handed down from one family member to another.

"I thought we'd lost it," said a relieved Friedel, 62, of Perry Hall as he walked off with a snazzybrown overcoat lined with orange satin. "This is pretty old. My daughter's mother-in-law gave this to my younger daughter. She fell in love with it. We wouldn't have been able to replace it."

That sentiment might explain why more than 30 customers -- including a state delegate and a police officer who had left his uniforms at Finesse -- called the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division.

"These people had dropped their clothes off, paid for the cleaning and then came back only to find, sadly, that the doors were locked," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who was at the store yesterday morning. "Even if you've got a $10 shirt in there or a $500 suit, it's important to you. Besides, having clothes held hostage for six weeks is a major inconvenience."

Curran's office receives 100,000 complaints from dissatisfied consumers every year. In some cases, when businesses such as health spas go bankrupt, owners are bonded so that customers are supposed to get their prepaid fees refunded, Curran said. Customers of businesses that are not bonded have no such protection, he said.

Sukhdarshan G. Singh, owner of Finesse, said his employees called hundreds of customers two months ago and asked them to pick up their clothes by Jan. 7. Singh closed the Perry Hall store for good Jan. 8 and declared corporate bankruptcy Jan. 11. He couldn't compete with other cleaners, he said.

"It's been hard on our customers," Singh said as he walked between racks of clothing, matching receipts to tag numbers. "If I were a customer, I'd feel the same way. But it's been hard on us, too. I'm suffering, too. I made my best effort to give everyone a chance to come get their things."

About 200 people collected their clothing before he closed, Singh said.

At first, confused customers slipped notes under the door asking for their clothes. Then came telephone calls to trustees, attorneys and the bankruptcy court. When angry customers got nowhere, they called Curran.

Among them was Del. Katherine Klausmeier, a Democrat who represents the Perry Hall area. She said she had no idea that the call to pick up garments meant the shop was closing for good.

"Thank goodness I only had one blouse there," said Klausmeier, who arrived at 8 a.m. sharp yesterday, when the shop opened. "I would have been jumping up and down a little bit harder if I had a lot of stuff there."

For Jerry McLean, the aggravation wasn't just that he had prepaid $2 for the cleaning. It also was, to be frank, his sports coat.

"It really upset me that someone could just keep my stuff like that," said McLean, 57, of Perry Hall. "I can't tell you how many phone calls I made to try and get this thing back."

Imagine then, Marlene Riggio's horror.

"My husband had to wear the same outfits over and over again," said Riggio, 47, clutching an armful of suits in clear plastic bags. "He needed a suit and a tie every day for work, and a lot of it was in there. It was so frustrating."

By noon, as Singh prepared to close his shop for good, the shop still had racks full of garments wrapped in plastic. Some had been there as long as two years.

Ruth Ryan, 48, rescued her black wool coat and three blazers from the unclaimed bunch collection.

"These are special to me," the Baltimorean said. "I am so glad I got them back."

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