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Capitol Hill’s vacuum repairman says goodbye to his 50-year-old family business

Central Vacuum owner Dennis McDonnell has removed most of the pictures that once covered his shop walls (Image: CHS)

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.  

he old storefronts will soon work together on E Pike just above 13th

The old storefronts will soon work together on E Pike just above 13th

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.”

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9 thoughts on “Capitol Hill’s vacuum repairman says goodbye to his 50-year-old family business

  1. I hope Dennis can make the jump to work out of Dave’s. I’ve been going the Central Vacuum for several decades, it reminded me of walking into an old barber shop when his dad, one or another crony and Dennis would be there working and hanging out. Over the years , walking by and waving at a familiar face was a small chunk of my past and I cherish it. It was the same at Piecora’s, ate there most weekends but during the week, just walking by I would stop and say hi, stand near the counter and chat for a minute, very pleasant .

  2. Great article. You need to fix this sentence: “Most of those client have gone away, leaving mostly individuals and a few property owners who continue to use to old vacuums.”

  3. Central Vacuum was one of those throwbacks to an earlier time when people actually repaired household appliances instead of chucking them into the garbage when they broke down; even just entering gave one the sense of traveling backwards in time. As a sometimes customer for more than 20 years, I wish McDonnell all the best, and look forward to picking up my U-series dust bags and replacement belts at Dave’s – cash in-hand – for many years to come.

  4. Dennis, I hope you can make the move to Dave’s .. seems like that could be a great partnership! When I heard you were closing, it made me sad .. I’ve bought 2 vaccuum’s from you and would love buy my next one too!

  5. Agreed with all here. I no longer have any rugs or carpeting, so I haven’t been in the shop for years, but this shop has been a cornerstone for the neighborhood, and I used to get replacement bags and have my old upright repaired there. People don’t specialize anymore, which is too bad, because large stores are more likely to want to sell you a replacement than repair your (vacuum, watch, appliance, etc). I hope McDonnell does make the move to Dave’s.

    Thanks for the story.

  6. I’ve been a customer there for over a decade and Dennis and his father have kept my vacuums running great. There is something satisfying about keeping an appliance for decades, taking care of it, and having someone in the neighborhood that shares your values. One time I had a (very modest) repair bill of $30, and said that I only had about $27 in my wallet, and that I would be right back with the extra cash. Dennis looked at me and said ‘well, your repair bill just became $27’. I protested, and said it was really no bother to go get the money but he insisted on his new price.

    Fabulous service at great prices — I hope you can move on over to Dave’s. I’ve actually never been in their (no need yet) — but now I’d have a reason.

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