When he first arrived in America, he only had $2 in his pocket, but since then
Demetrios “Jimmy” Kartsonis has
become the proud owner of a successful drycleaning plant in Jacksonville, FL,
for nearly 36 years.
Before he immigrated to the U.S., he lived in modest conditions in his hometown
of Leontarion, Greece, a small
village south of Tripolis.
“We had no toilet. We had no running water, no electricity, no heat in the house.
The only heat we had in the
house was the fireplace,” Jimmy recalled. “The food that you cooked today was eaten today, tomorrow or the day
after for sure because there was no refrigeration. Back in those days, it was
like you went back to the 1600s or
1700s in the United States.”
It was a humble beginning, but
his father was a good provider
and always able to put enough
food on the plates, even when
people in the town didn’t have
much money to spend.
“My father was a blacksmith
and his father was a blacksmith.
He had his blacksmith shop right
underneath our house,” he
explained. “People would bring
their axes, their plows and
whatever they needed for him to
do and some of the money that
was exchanged was in trade… I’ll
give you a couple pounds of
cheese if you do this for me.”
The barter system wasn’t always perfect and the country’s politics was in even worse shape as Greece was locked
in a polarizing civil war during Jimmy’s childhood.
“My father decided to move to the United States so the kids would have a better
life,” Jimmy noted. “In 1955, my
father and I and my older sister moved here. My mother, my older brother and
younger sister had to stay back in
Greece because my brother was in the army at the time. So, we had to split the
Fortunately Jimmy had two uncles who lived in Jacksonville, one a physician and
the other the owner of a shoe
repair store, but being in a new country and not knowing the language was a hard
mountain to climb.
“Two or three weeks after we came in, we found a little apartment and the first
meal that we had there was
spaghetti that my sister cooked,” he said. “We had one spoon, one knife and one fork. We passed the fork around so
we all could eat.”
At least there was enough food to eat, even if there weren’t always enough plates to put it on. Still, Jimmy wanted
a better life so he took three English language courses at a technical school
while he worked evenings at his uncle’s
“My first check was $13.75,” he recollected. “I was feeling rich because I had money in my pocket.”
Jimmy remembers when the family’s upstairs neighbors moved out and offered them some household items they
were leaving behind for $75.
“From that day on, we were in a higher class because we had all of the silverware
we needed to eat,” he said.
In 1958, the rest of the family was able to come from Greece, but it proved to
be a bittersweet reunion.
“My mother came in August of 1958. My father was diagnosed with cancer and he
died in January of 1959,” he
recalled. “So, actually, we only had six months as a family back together.”
Jimmy did not have long to grieve, though. He now had a lot more responsibility
on his plate.
“My brother could not work because he had no visa. My mother could not speak
English so she could not do
anything. My older sister was married and had moved to Salt Lake City. So, I was
the head of the family, not by
choice. I had to do it,” he said.
Over the years, he took on any work he could find: cutting grass, washing
dishes, cooking and loading so many
gallons of ice cream onto delivery trucks at the docks that he no longer desired
to eat any.
In 1960, he moved to New York and soon after he was drafted into the army where
he served two years, including
one in Korea, before he was honorably discharged and sent home. Then, a friend
told him about an opportunity to
own a small drycleaning shop called Major Cleaners.
Jimmy would open the store at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. and do everything by
himself, which was about 250
garments a week in the beginning. Within two-and-a-half years, the business was
paid off so he reinvested in new
equipment and gained help in the form of his wife Demetra and his brother Chris.
“By Christmas of 1968, the place was doing 1,500 garments a week, so we were
rolling,” he said.
In 1973 they opened a second store and things were going well. However, the
first store soon burned down and
the other store was robbed years later.
“Somebody came in with a gun and started shooting,” Jimmy recalled. “If you hold your palm in a cup-like
[position], that’s how big the hole was in the concrete floor.”
The experience was frightening enough to prompt Chris to leave the business and
Jimmy to return to Jacksonville
in 1978 where he bought San Jose Square Cleaners.
From the first day they owned the new business, Jimmy and Demetra wanted to add
a personal touch for their
“I remember when we first came here and my wife said, ‘At the windowsill we’re going to put a coffee pot and
have some cookies for the customers, candies for the little ones,’” Jimmy reminisced. “Well, all this time that coffee
pot has been in that spot — well, it’s a new coffee pot now.”
Another tradition they instigated from the start was handing out 50-cent pieces
to customers who had a newborn
baby or bought a car recently.
“That’s a Greek tradition to give silver — obviously a 50-cent piece is not silver anymore. It’s a protection symbol.
It’s for strength,” noted Tom Kartsonis, who runs the business with his father. “We do it to this day. It’s amazing.
People will come in from the dealership before they go home.”
San Jose Square Cleaners is not your typical plant and the Kartsonises aren’t your typical owners. They are often
invited to weddings, baptisms and funerals because they treat customers like
family be it in the store or out around
town. One Sunday Jimmy was shopping when he noticed one of his customers forgot
her pocketbook to pay for her
“She was hysterical,” he recalled. “I charged her groceries, whatever it was — $35 or $40 — to my credit card.
That was the best advertisement I ever got. You become friends with the people
that you see every day.”
The Kartsonis family is also flexible when it comes to transactions at the
plant. They might not accept credit cards,
but they do accept IOUs.
In fact, one customer became accustomed to sending in a signed blank check every
month to cover his
outstanding balance, trusting Jimmy to fill in the correct amount. You simply
can’t buy that kind of trust and it hasn’t
“Until now, maybe I’ve lost a couple hundred of dollars in 30 years,” Jimmy noted. “There are some people who
will take you for a ride, but if you are good to them, they will never do it.”
To show their appreciation every year during the holidays, the family often
gives gifts of candy or cookies or, more
recently, bottles of wine and olive oil. It’s all part of Jimmy’s secret of success.
“The most important thing I think is that I was there. I was there six days a
week and sometimes I’m even there
on Sundays,” he explained. “I try to get all of the people’s names and remember them. The customer has to be
treated like God. If you don’t treat the customer good, no matter what, you are building a house on the sand.
Not only has the business lasted, but it has helped Jimmy put his two sons
through college and has even given
him the ability to buy the entire strip mall where his plant is located. He
wrote a six-figure check for the down
payment in the early 1980s and literally jumped for joy at the thought that
nobody questioned its validity. “It sounds
funny, but believe me, it feels good,” he said.
Demetra laughed at her husband at the time, but she’s always been willing to help him any way she can (and not
just by providing homemade cookies for customers).
“She has been with me all the time. At times when a presser didn’t show up, we would go to work at 2 o’clock in
the morning,” he recalled. “When she was pregnant she used to ride on two buses to get to work to give me a
so when Tom says he’s been in the drycleaning business since he was born, it’s just about right.”
The Kartsonis family has always believed in doing whatever is possible for the
benefit of their customers, but once
in a while, that dedication is turned back in their direction.
Over five years ago, Demetra was diagnosed with leukemia. Cards wishing her well
poured in, as did a special
offer from one wealthy client.
“He found out that my wife would have to travel to MD Anderson Cancer Center in
Texas,” Jimmy explained,
holding back a tear. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘If you have to go to Anderson, I have some connections.
The only thing you have to do is pick up the phone and call me. I am going to
have a jet ready to take you there.’”
Fortunately, the cancer has since gone into remission, but Jimmy never forgot
the gesture just as his customers
never seem to forget his tireless efforts for them. But then, he seems incapable
of doing any less.
“I don’t care if it’s a drycleaning business or if it’s picking up crap from the elephants behind the parade, give 110
percent and do it right,” he said. “If you do it right, the door will open and you will make it.”