Brown Barn Launderette in Cave Junction, Oregon

‘La Bucanera’ Discovers New Niche… On Dry Land: Former Treasure Hunter Reinvents Herself as Oregon Laundry Entrepreneur

So an unshaven man carrying a walking stick and wearing nothing but a bearskin, held on by a leather strap around his waist, walks into the laundromat…

If you’re waiting for a punch line to this obvious joke set-up, you’ll have to keep waiting. It’s no joke.

It’s just another day at the office for Margaret Brandeis, co-owner (with husband Joel Buck) of the Brown Barn Launderette in Cave Junction, Ore.

The ultimate dream of every coin laundry operator would be to have customers coming out of the woodwork. At the Brown Barn Launderette, some customers come out of the woods.

Cave Junction is situated about 13 miles from the California border in southwest Oregon. Its two gas stations and a few other service businesses provide the last taste of civilization for spelunkers bound for the Oregon Caves National Monument. Bounded by the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, the Siskiyou National Forest and the Rogue River National Forest, Cave Junction and the surrounding Illinois Valley are isolated. And according to Brandeis, Josephine County is the poorest county in the country.

So what was Brandeis thinking when she took over the venerable laundromat in Cave Junction? That, as you might imagine, is a story in itself.

For 17 years, Brandeis was one of the few women involved in treasure hunting. We’re not talking about zigzagging around strands of beaches with a metal detector. Brandeis owned an 85-foot salvage vessel, employed a commercial dive crew, and went in search of ships – believed to have been hauling millions of dollars in gold, silver, emeralds and other treasure – that had sunk during the 16th and 17th centuries.

An expedition to the Bahamas in 1980 unearthed – undrowned? – a quarter-million dollars in treasure. In 1997, after searching for years, Brandeis and crew brought up some 400 pieces of Spanish pottery – a “debris trail” indicative of more precious artifacts nearby – from a dive off the coast of Ecuador. But even though contracts were in place with Ecuador’s government that guaranteed Brandeis a 50/50 split of any find, an official reneged on the deal and confiscated the entire haul.

Out of money and out of trust for foreign governments, Brandeis’ days as La Bucanera, as she was known in Ecuador, were over.

Re-adjusting to the “real world” proved to be a challenge. “For 17 years, I had been living on a boat with nothing but ocean in every direction,” she says. “Coming back to a big metropolitan area like San Francisco… it seemed very crowded.”

Brandeis dispatched tow trucks, marketed cell phone batteries and managed property.

“I went through a half-dozen jobs, but just couldn’t find my niche,” she says.

Brandeis and her husband “needed to get away from civilization,” and began traveling around the West in search of a quiet place to live and, eventually, retire. They found what they were seeking in Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains, and bought a 12-acre ranch.

Jobs were few and far between, however, and above-minimum-wage positions seemingly were non-existent. A business of their own would be the best solution for Brandeis and Buck, and they soon learned that the local laundromat was for sale.

That was the good news. The bad news was that it had been on the market for six years – not the best of indicators from a profit potential perspective. But it seemed like the best opportunity available in Cave Junction, and a deal was negotiated.

As expected, Brandeis concluded that a major modernization was needed to make the business viable. But the existing owner felt it was important to not shut down the store during renovation because so many people depended on it. After all, it was the only coin laundry along the 90-mile stretch between Grants Pass, Ore., and Crescent City, Calif. So, the Brown Barn kept its doors open during the day, and Brandeis and company worked overnights for six weeks, replacing equipment and performing other upgrades, one small section at a time. It was a daunting task.

“Because the building had been added on to a few times, the floor wasn’t uniformly level, the age of the wiring varied from section to section, and we had to deal with various types of building materials,” Brandeis recalls. “We found probably 30 years of lint behind the dryers, six to 10 inches thick and compressed. We had to use chisels and hammers to remove it – it came out in brown chunks.”

But none of that compared to the nightmare that ensued with the newly purchased equipment. Brandeis had gone through a broker in northern California, and several of the machines simply didn’t work.

“We spent $100,000 with this guy, and he wasn’t giving us any help at all,” Brandeis says. “He offered to send up his own crew, but that would have cost us almost as much as the equipment. I later found out that he had done some side deal with another broker, so we didn’t even get all of the equipment from him.”

Because the reputation of the laundromat had become so poor under previous ownership, Brandeis knew that properly functioning equipment was essential for the July 2005 grand re-opening. But because of the problems with the broker, she says, the last of the out-of-order signs didn’t come down until two months later.

Brandeis describes her experience with the broker as “the most terrible thing I’ve encountered in the laundromat industry so far. I can’t imagine anything will ever top that in terms of frustration and stress.”

So far, she has been right. In fact, business has been on a steady upswing as word spread through the community that things had changed at the Brown Barn.

“Word of mouth will either destroy you or bring in all the customers you need,” Brandeis observes, “so you need to make sure everyone leaves happy every time.”

Getting the community involved – invested might be a better word – in the business also is important.

“A lot of artists live in the area, and they helped out in the remodeling,” Brandeis says. “I was thinking of having a forest scene painted on the wall above the dryers, and invited people to submit sketches of possible renderings. One woman came in with her sketch and said, ‘Here’s your forest scene, but I have to tell you something: I don’t see a forest; I see a cow.’ The white machines with black circles on them reminded her of the dairy farm she’d worked on as a child. Our building is shaped like a barn, so a cow made perfect sense to me.”

The giant cow mural has become the store’s symbol of sorts, and motivated Brandeis to run a name-the-cow contest for her customers. The winning name: Cowabunga.

Another time, after she had gathered nearly 200 left-behind socks, Brandeis placed them all in a bin and conducted a guess-how-many-socks contest.

“Whether you offer a basket of laundry items or $25 in services, it costs next to nothing to run a contest, and the customers absolutely love it,” she asserts. “That’s the kind of thing that keeps people happy, and prompts them to tell their friends about the place.”

Other artwork adorns the Brown Barn’s interior as well, and by allowing artists to display their work, the store was included in the local Art Walk event – another promotion that cost nothing yet built considerable goodwill in the community.

The Brown Barn also has a three-station “Internet café” (and charges $3 per half-hour, “but if someone is doing laundry, I’m not watching the clock,” Brandeis says) and a public shower (priced at $4 per use, and becoming increasingly popular with truckers passing through town).

“The folks at the gas stations and restaurants get inquiries about Internet access, and they’re good about sending people to us,” she says.

Add in several commercial accounts – sheets for a local hotel, towels for a local beauty salon, tablecloths and aprons for the Red Garter Saloon across the street – and Brandeis has transformed a dilapidated facility that was bleeding customers into a bustling business.

It may not be as potentially profitable as treasure hunting, but Brandeis has found that there’s plenty of money to be made a quarter at a time.

SIDEBAR: Legal Lineage
If you’re a lawyer, or if you’ve put a son or daughter through law school, the Brandeis name may ring a bell. Louis Brandeis served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, and was the great-great uncle of Margaret Brandeis.

Before becoming a Justice, acting as a litigator in the 1908 Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon, Louis Brandeis provided detailed sociological information to the Court in what became known as the “Brandeis Brief.” It’s something all law school students encounter in their studies.

As a staunch supporter of freedom of speech, Justice Brandeis probably wouldn’t have had a quarrel with an ad run in the local Cave Junction newspaper by a coin laundry in Grants Pass, before the Brown Barn Launderette was modernized. The ad read: “Are you tired of out-of-order machines? Are you tired of your clothes not coming out clean? Come to Grants Pass…”

Justice Brandeis also believed that “decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials be subjected to the same rules that are commands to the citizen. If the government becomes a lawbreaker… it invites anarchy.”

It’s too bad Ecuador’s government wasn’t of the same mind when it effectively pulled the plug on Margaret Brandeis’ treasure-hunting career. Then again, had Brandeis been able to continue her adventures on the high seas, the residents of Cave Junction today might be doing their laundry some 40 miles away in Grants Pass.

Equipment Mix

Brown Barn Launderette • Cave Junction, Ore.

9 Speed Queen toploaders $1.75
3 Speed Queen triple-loaders $4.00
1 25-pound “Big Boy” ($5.00, for horse blankets and pet bedding)
6 Wascomat 20-pound frontloaders $3.00
7 Wascomat 30-pound frontloaders $5.00
1 Wascomat 55-pound frontloader $10.00
10 ADC stack dryers 25 cents for seven minutes
5 ADC 30-pound dryers 25 cents for six minutes
1 ADC 50-pound dryer 25 cents for five minutes
1 1970 Hammond Extractor 25 cents for two minutes
2 Paloma on-demand water heaters, with 320-gallon tank
14 R&B Wire Products laundry carts
3 customized, built-in folding tables
1 ironing station
1 GE refrigerator for selling soda
1 candy vending machine
1 1960 Federal coffee/hot chocolate/soup machine
4 Impression computers
1 Sanyo 19-inch television (located behind counter)
1 shower facility: $4.00 per shower
Wash-dry-fold service: 90 cents per pound