News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

October 28, 2010

B-SIDES: After nearly 90 years in business, Popoff Cleaners is closing

Business started by Bulgarian immigrants in 1920s

TERRE HAUTE — Tim Henry Popoff’s kids knew the sound of his car.

“We’d hear him pull in the drive, and we’d all run down to see him,” recalled his son, Tim J. Popoff. “He’d always bring us snacks.”

Their dad usually arrived late in the evening. He ran Popoff Cleaners and Coin Laundry at 1519 Wabash Ave., opening the place up at 8 a.m. and closing at 8 p.m. Seven days a week, 362 days a year. (He reluctantly took off three holidays.) Till he was 81 years old.

“I don’t know how he did it,” his son, Tim, said Wednesday, standing at the dry cleaning counter. “He was the hardest working man I ever saw.”

The elder Popoff’s tireless presence and generosity made him and his business a cornerstone of the working-class neighborhood. Along with their dirty pants and dresses, customers often brought their problems to Popoff and he’d listen. He’d buy pops and candy for kids who looked hungry. He’d slip a few bucks to a regular who was short on cash.

He let dry cleaning customers run a credit tab, which he recorded “in a little notebook,” said his daughter, Tirzah Popoff, “and it went on for years.”

Tim Henry Popoff died May 20, 2009, a year after ailments forced him to, finally, stop working and let his family and a longtime employee take up the slack.

At 8 o’clock this Saturday night, his son, Tim J., will lock the doors for good. Popoff Cleaners, a business started by this family of Bulgarian immigrants in the early 1920s, is closing. Operating costs have risen, and habits have changed. “People just don’t dry clean these days,” Tirzah explained. The trend didn’t happen overnight. In the last two years of her father’s life, he had to use his savings just to pay the bills.

“It’s really emotional,” Tirzah said, her voice breaking.

Popoff Cleaners exemplified the American dream.

The business began when Frank Popoff Sr. left his tumultuous Bulgarian homeland and wound up in Terre Haute before World War I. He gained United States citizenship by joining the U.S. Army, fought in France and eventually returned to Terre Haute and opened a dry cleaning shop in 12 Points. Whenever political tensions eased in Bulgaria, Frank Sr. would go back there to live, briefly. Once, he brought his brother, George, to America, and George joined the business, starting a shop at 2016 Wabash Ave.

Family members often pitched in, including Frank P. Popoff, the son of Frank Sr. Frank P. became the CEO of Dow Chemical. “I learned how to press trousers and deliver clothes,” said Frank P., who turned 75 on Wednesday and is retired in Midland, Mich.

After Frank Sr. died and George became elderly, their nephew, Tim Henry Popoff, purchased George’s dry cleaning shop, and opened the laundromat at 1519 Wabash in the 1970s. Later, he consolidated them into one business that, in its heyday, had patrons waiting in line for an open washer or dryer.

But that’s merely the condensed version of Tim Henry Popoff’s story. His path from Gorna Melna, Bulgaria, to Terre Haute partly explains his relentless work ethic.

In 1946, Bulgaria became a communist state, under the control of the Soviet Union. In his 20s, Tim Henry Popoff — born Eftim Haralampiev in 1926 — decided to escape the regime’s rule and join a resistance movement in neighboring Yugoslavia. While his parents and five siblings slept in their farmhouse in Gorna Melna, Tim Henry slipped out in the middle of the night. “[The children] all slept in one bed, and he kissed them all and waved goodbye,” his son, Tim J., said.

With only an old gun, hidden, for protection, Tim Henry somehow sneaked past heavy border patrols into Yugoslavia. Once he realized the resistance movement wasn’t quite what he’d been told, he traveled on to Italy, then Germany, where he worked for the U.S. Army, and then to America.

His four kids seldom heard him elaborate on that dangerous journey.

“I’d say, ‘How’d you get here?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, I swam across the ocean, and rode on an alligator,’” Tim J. said.

In his thick, Bulgarian accent, Tim Henry would remind his son, “I came to this country with $20 in my pocket.” He passed through Ellis Island and, at his Uncle Frank Popoff Sr.’s suggestion, he shortened his Bulgarian name Eftim Haralampiev to Tim Henry Popoff.

To protect his parents and siblings back home, Tim Henry had to break ties with them, said Frank P. Popoff, his cousin. If the communist officials suspected his family aided Tim Henry’s escape, his mother, father, four brothers and one sister could be targeted for punishment. So Tim Henry never wrote them, and his family pretended to disavow him. Six years after his escape, Frank Popoff Sr. mailed a photograph, with no identification, of Tim Henry and his U.S. relatives to his family in Bulgaria, to let them know he was alive.

In America, he found freedom. Tim Henry married his wife, the Rev. Karol M. Popoff, who survives. He served in the U.S. Army. On Sept. 22, 1961 — his 35th birthday — he received his American citizenship.

“He loved this country,” his son said. “It was free, and if you worked hard, you got ahead.”

And, indeed, Tim Henry Popoff worked hard.

On Wednesday, inside the cleaners he created, some familiar faces dropped in on his son. The mailman slapped a packet of letters on the countertop and said, “Tim, what’s this rumor I’m hearing?”

“We’re gonna close,” Tim J. answered, drawing a frown. The mailman asked Tim J., who has three young kids, what he’ll do next. He’s not sure, but said he may work at the new Cackleberries restaurant that Tirzah and her husband, Mechmet Toptsi, will open next week at Seventh and Poplar streets. Then the mailman shook Tim’s hand and left.

At a folding table sat an older lady named Georgia, reading the newspaper. Tim bought her a Sprite, and whispered to me, “She’s my buddy. She always cooks me something.” He gave Georgia the newspaper and joked with her. Then she left.

Beyond the rows of 47 washers and 27 dryers, on the yellow wall by the side door, hangs a note …

“We want to thank our loyal customers who stuck by us through thick and thin. Many of you are more like friends and family, and we’ll miss you. You meant a lot to Dad, and we appreciate you all. Thanks and God bless. — The Popoffs.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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