Jin Lee, owner of Excel Cleaners at 100 Bethlehem Pike, has developed a devoted clientele over her almost 19 years in this location. (Photo by Brenda Lange)

by Brenda Lange

Jin Lee greets visitors with a ready smile and warm handshake. The owner of Excel Cleaners at 100 Bethlehem Pike (at East Chestnut Hill Avenue) in Chestnut Hill has developed a devoted clientele over the course of almost 19 years in this location, in part, thanks to her genuine warmth.

In 1983, Lee decided she had to flee the political unrest in South Korea, where she worked as an office assistant at Sungshin Women’s University and took general education courses, including classes in the Chinese language, home economics — sewing and cooking — and accounting. “The police there harassed us and made us uncomfortable all the time,” Lee explains of her decision to leave. “I wanted to have a life of freedom.”

When she and her husband first arrived in the U.S. and settled in Allentown, Lee, 66, took some time to figure out a plan. She worked in a grocery store in Allentown, and then the couple moved to Northeast Philadelphia, where she worked in a Center City restaurant, which she said “didn’t go well.” Then Lee operated a stand in the Flourtown Farmers’ Market, but none of these endeavors satisfied her.

So she drew on the sewing skills gained while growing up in Seoul and her university classes and got a job with Market Square Cleaners in Wyndmoor and then at Friends Cleaners in Melrose Park, where she learned all about operating a laundry service. Eventually, she found Excel Cleaners and opened her own operation in 2000. “I always wanted my own shop,” said Lee. “It’s a hard job sometimes. Standing all day can get very tiring, but I enjoy it much better [than the previous jobs]. And Chestnut Hill reminded me of home.”

Lee has two children, Luke, 34, who is married with a one-year-old daughter, and Jean, 31, with whom she shares a home in Flourtown. Jean, who has worked with her mother in the shop from time to time, helps translate some of her mom’s thoughts, as Jin’s English is peppered with Korean words and phrases, and she occasionally struggles to find the right English words.

Kate O’Neill, director of operations for the Chestnut Hill Business Association, is one of Lee’s regulars. O’Neill, who lives in Wyndmoor and just happened to stop by while a reporter was speaking with the Lees, said, “I have been coming here for many years because she always gives me such a sweet smile, and we like the same Korean TV program. And she can get out any stain and takes the time to explain what she’s done.”

Lee nods and smiles when asked about her ability to remove stains other cleaners cannot. She is willing to share one tip: Immediately squirt a little dishwashing liquid on the stain, dab it with another cloth, and wash…or soak it for eight hours in one cup of dish powder in water. “But never do this to silk,” she says emphatically. “It will not work with silk.”

Lee does the cleaning and all types of alterations in the store, however, she sends clothes offsite to be pressed, using an establishment in Southampton. Chestnut Hill resident Janet Ries Stern, another devoted customer, credits Lee’s “humble expertise” with making many special events in her life possible. “She helped me with sewing projects, including prom dresses and Bar Mitzvah, baptism and wedding outfits. She is always helpful and kind.”

Naturally, there is a slight extra charge for the extra attention and hand cleaning, but Lee said she has built a reliable clientele through her willingness to take whatever steps are necessary. “One man came in with a yellow dinner jacket with a big coffee stain, here,” she says, gesturing to the right side of her waist. “His other cleaner couldn’t get it out, but I could,” she added with a large smile. “And I had a happy customer.”

Jean Lee said her mother is very generous, often giving her customers suggestions for the best Korean grocery stores and samples of the kimchi that she loves to make. She even gives some of them small gifts at Christmas time. “People come in who acknowledge our South Korean heritage, the Olympics in 2011, our food and culture, and that means a lot to her,” said Jean. “Sometimes she gives away small plants that she grows here.” Several pots of red, pink and yellow Crown of Thorns grace her front windows.

Jin retains much of the faith of her Catholic upbringing and is grateful for her life, often donating old clothing to the local churches, doing sewing for them and letting the sisters and pastors post flyers for their rummage sales in the show windows. “I love what I do, and as long as my health is good, I will keep working,” Lee added with her trademark smile.

For more information, call 215-836-9908. Brenda Lange has been a journalist, author, editor and photographer for more than two decades and also has produced content for dozens of businesses, working mainly from her home in Philly’s Fairmount section. Visit www.brendalange.com