On a recent afternoon, a customer picking up his vacuum from Capitol Hill’s Central Vacuum Service was relieved to find he had $40 in his pocket. The man wanted to pay for his $36 repair with a credit card, but Central Vacuum has been cash only since it opened in 1959.
“I’ve been saying it for years: one of these days, we’ll enter the 1990s,” said owner Dennis McDonnell as he made change for his customer.
Sadly, that day won’t come for Central Vacuum. CHS previously wrote about how the E Pike vacuum repair shop would be closing at the end of January as Doghouse Leathers plans to expand into the space. Still up is the shop’s familiar red Hoover sign that, for years, has marked the the E Pike block between 13th and 14th Aves. McDonnell, 59, is still packing up decades of accumulated vacuum parts and souvenirs.
It’s not how he wanted to go out. McDonnell’s father, Dick McDonnell, opened the business in a space next-door and he remained a permanent fixture in the store until his death last year at 87. Following his father’s death, McDonnell said it was his family’s decision to close the business and he reluctantly agreed. The McDonnell family still owns the building, which includes the two retail spaces and an apartment upstairs.
As often happens, news of the longtime business closing sparked an outpouring of support among regular customers — so much so that McDonnell is now considering running a pared down business out of Dave’s Appliance shop just up the block.
As a young boy, McDonnell was quickly ushered into his father’s grown-up world. Dick McDonnell was a longtime Seattle horse breeder and boxing promoter and coach. Dennis grew up surrounded by horses and boxing, topics he’s much more interested in talking about than Central Vacuum’s seven decade run.
The shop is filled with images of McDonnell’s favorite boxers and horses, many with Seattle ties. He jumps from one picture to the next, telling stories of gambling and drinking with a strident laugh that causes him to hunch over. There were nights at Swannies Sports Bar, rubbing elbows with comedians who were playing the Comedy Underground and countless afternoons spent betting at Longacres Ractrack in Renton before it was torn down in 1992
“Our family is fun dysfunctional,” McDonnell said. “The vacuum business kind of held it all together.”
The business hasn’t changed that much over the years, including the prices — McDonnell hasn’t raised his $20 service charge in 25 years. In the past, Central Vacuum had clients from hotel and janitorial companies. Most of those clients have gone away, leaving mostly individuals and a few property owners who continue to use old vacuums.
McDonnell grew up in Issaquah and started working in his father’s vacuum shop when he was 16. It’s not the job he imagined he would spend most of his adult life doing, but McDonnell has few regrets.
“I’ve always been good to everybody… it’s nice to have everyone like you,” he said. “It’s rare you can get up and look forward to going to work.”