The first things you notice when you arrive at Bright Cleaners on West Shore Road are the 2017 and 2019 "e;Next Door Neighbored Favorite"e; awards on the door. Once inside, you'll be warmly greeted by Uksoon or her friendly husband Bruce.
The first things you notice when you arrive at Bright Cleaners on West Shore Road are the 2017 and 2019 “Next Door Neighbored Favorite” awards on the door. Once inside, you’ll be warmly greeted by Uksoon or her friendly husband Bruce. Their small shop has been a neighborhood fixture for 15 years. “When people ask where my store is I tell them, ‘It’s by Antonio’s Bakery!’” Uksoon explains with a smile.
There’s always a breeze coming through the front door, where a blue curtain billows, rippling beside spools of thread in every color which line a shelf on the wall. Uksoon’s sewing machine is at the window, where she looks up from her work and smiles at the customers as they drive up.
This very spot was where her daughter played on the floor as a two-year-old, strewing her shoes and toys on the floor, and, to her mother’s consternation, drawing with crayons on the front of the cash register counter. These days Bruce and Uksoon’s long-time customers are surprised to learn the little child who played on the floor is now a 16-year-old high school student, with a diverse group of friends, dreaming of one day traveling to Canada.
The Lees’ story begins in South Korea where Bruce and Uksoon met when they were both 18 years old. Like his father, uncle, and grandfather before him, Bruce worked for the Korean Service Corps of the United States Eighth Army. His grandfather was a Korean War veteran who transported ammunition to the front lines. His father fought with the US Army in Vietnam. His uncle was with the U.S. military police. Bruce was employed as a government housing inspector for U.S. military base personnel in Seoul.
When they were 24 years old, Bruce and Uksoon married, and soon moved to the United States with their infant daughter. While living with a relative in Massachusetts for a year, Bruce attended the University of Massachusetts where he studied computer science. The following year, the family moved to Rhode Island where Bruce and Uksoon purchased and opened their dry cleaning business.
Bruce, the more outgoing of the two, was soon comfortably conversing in English with his customers. Uksoon, on the other hand, admits the first six months were daunting, preferring the back of the store where she could work quietly.
She said it was “two years later” when she finally felt acclimated to the United States.
“We didn’t realize when we bought the business it was out of order. We were really struggling,” Bruce said. Environmental agencies inspected their store twice in six months. Eventually their shop met EPA standards. “That was a long journey,” he remembers.
A self-taught seamstress, Uksoon began mending socks and small things when she was young. Today she moves seamlessly between assisting customers, answering the phone, altering clothes, and sewing facemasks for her customers “in yellow, my favorite color,” she says.
She recalled the first year their dry cleaning business opened.
“Our daughter was two. It was a lot of stress, and we had no customers. But every year there were more and more,” she added.
That first year, and for the five years that followed, Bruce and Uksoon worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. They had no chairs, and their bed was a mattress on the floor. One day Uksoon wistfully thought of how much she would like to buy a bagel. “Now it’s better,” Uksoon says gratefully.
When she was six years old, their little girl noticed two high school students kissing in front of the store. She decided to design a “no kissing” sign in the shape of a stop sign, which she placed in the store window. During the summers, as she grew older, she helped in her parents’ store by bagging the cleaned clothing.
Bruce and Uksoon haven’t returned to South Korea since their move to the United States in 2004. Their daughter has no memory of it, and they want to share it with her some day. “This is her country.”
“Our daughter’s education was the reason for moving to the United States,” Bruce continues. “This is a great country!” He and Uksoon believe being bilingual will offer their daughter many opportunities in the future.
Over the years Uksoon has blossomed into accomplished cook and baker of both Korean and traditional American dishes, like Korean sausage stew and New England clam chowder. Her YouTube channel, “Uksoon Recipe,” contains cooking demonstrations with step-by-step instructions and includes animation and graphics for a polished presentation, and background music to complement Uksoon’s soft voice as she narrates.
One day, a Pilgrim High School graduate walked through the doors of Bright Cleaners. Bruce recognized him as actor and director James Woods. With each subsequent visit when he was in town, Woods always remembered Bruce and Uksoon by name. He thanked them for their service one day with a box of pastries from Antonio‘s Bakery. Once wistfully wishing for a bagel, today Uksoon is the gracious recipient of such kindnesses from her customers.
There is a Korean proverb, “Gosaeng kkeute nagi onda,” which translates to “Delight comes at the end of difficulty.” Delight has definitely come for Bruce and Uksoon after some challenging years.
Bright Cleaners is located at 2436 West Shore Road, Warwick, RI, 02889, right near Antonio‘s Bakery. It is open from 7:30AM to 6:00PM, Monday through Saturday.