COLUMBIA — Snapshots of friends and family members are off the walls, and the clothes have been returned to customers. After six years, Mama Bessie’s Cleaners has closed.
On Monday, Margaret Hickem-Smith moved out of her dry cleaning business on North Garth Avenue. The boiler was breaking down, and Hickem-Smith didn’t have the means to purchase a new one, which she estimated would cost $10,000.
Hickem-Smith, who has been pressing clothes since she was 16, opened Mama Bessie’s six years ago. She named her business after her beloved grandmother, who taught her the valued trade.
The closing of Mama Bessie’s involves more than a dry-cleaning business folding under economic pressures. Her business became a hub for neighborhood activities.
Each year, Hickem-Smith hosted back-to-school gatherings, Halloween parties and Christmas get-togethers where she gave away school supplies, clothes and toys to families in need.
Although Hickem-Smith was the organizer, she always enlisted help from family, friends and others.
She never shied away from asking for community and family support. A money jar sat on the front counter for customers who wanted to help, and friends and family members always volunteered to provide food or help prepare for upcoming festivities.
Hickem-Smith hosted her first event, a back-to-school party, six years ago. She invited 50 bikers, who gave away a truckload of school supplies, to the get-together. With more than 500 people in attendance, she deemed the event a success.
“I decided to have gatherings so people would remember me,” she said, adding that they also served as a way to advertise her business. “I made a lot of customers in the process, but then I started enjoying it. It was fun watching everyone having fun, and I forgot about the advertising.”
These small gatherings in the parking lot of Mama Bessie’s or at Douglass Park became communitywide efforts.
Hickem-Smith had a particularly strong relationship with members of the Columbia Fire Department station on Orr Street who have donated bicycles, toys and clothes for past events.
“Margaret has made a big impact, and I know she is still going to be involved where she sees the need,” said Lt. Debbie Sorrell, assistant fire marshal for the Fire Department. “She does a great job cleaning and pressing. But more importantly, she is a great neighbor.”
As Sorrell said, the giving became contagious, and Fire Department employees donated toys even when Hickem-Smith didn’t have anything planned.
“It takes so much to organize these events," Hickem-Smith said. "I would tell myself this is the last party I will have for a while. But people from the Fire Department would give me toys or clothes, and, immediately, I would plan to do something with it.”
After closing Mama Bessie’s, Hickem-Smith received job offers from surrounding cleaners. She said she might rest a bit before going back to work, but with a retirement party she's helping plan for Mayor Darwin Hindman, she has no intention of taking a break from the Douglass neighborhood.
“I’m still going to be doing stuff for the community,” she said. “That’s what I like to do. I’m hooked on it.”
Anyone who needs to claim clothes from Mama Bessie's Cleaners can call Margaret Hickem-Smith at 449-0955.