Windows of opportunity: Dr. Glass cleans up
By Craig Wilson
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WASHINGTON -- The last thing you want to do on a weekend is spend time washing windows. There are people to do that kind of thing. People like Philip Bregstone, a.k.a. Dr. Glass.
Here's the rub: He's celebrating his 20th year polishing glass; he travels cross-country to service his devoted customers; and he grosses close to $100,000 a year in the process. Part time.
Nice work if you can get it.
Bregstone bought his first squeegee at 15, when he decided to wash windows during the day to make extra money to support his rock-band habit at night.
''I had a job or two a day and then played with the band all night,'' says Bregstone, now 38, with a music degree.
Part-time work appealed to him, so he stayed with it. Now he lives in Colorado with his wife and two children, returning to the Washington area every spring and fall to clean the windows of those rich and famous people who live in glass houses.
He couldn't be happier, especially at Georgetown cocktail parties where the conversation immediately turns to, ''And what do you do?''
''I get the biggest kick out of that,'' says Bregstone of dropping his career bomb in a living room full of lawyers. ''They all look at me as if to say, 'Who is this guy?'''
Answer: A guy who says he works as hard as he can for four months ''and then I'm done.''
The rest of his time is spent helping raise his children, teaching piano and guitar, and working at the co-housing community he and his family call home.
Bregstone can work alone but often trains other window washers who work for him for a while without pay. ''And then I give them some jobs. It works out perfectly. I don't have a payroll, and it empowers them to be good business people. Many window washers here are my protégés.''
But rich people can be protective of their help.Their window washer is no exception.
''There's a core of people who only want me,'' he says. ''I'm a boutique window washer. But I can't get to all the jobs, so I farm some of them out.''
This summer Bregstone has been working alongside an ordained minister, a Ph.D. in government and politics, and an interior designer. He says they listen to National Public Radio, and the subsequent conversations make the chore of washing windows much less tedious.
Bregstone's speciality is contemporary homes.
''With walls of glass, tons of skylights. Many of my houses have spectacular views of the Potomac River,'' he says. ''I do Williamsburg-style houses, too, but that's not a lot of fun. A zillion panes of glass.''
He does everything. Inside. Outside. Mirrors. Chandeliers. Even glass-front fireplaces.
Bregstone charges by the house -- how many windows it might have, how difficult it is to get to them. Sometimes his price can be as high as $2,000, especially if it's a recently completed building. Most jobs hover around $1,000.
And every day offers up something new.
''You can't be a window washer overnight. Every new job has its challenges. Washing the windows isn't the big deal. Prepping for the job, moving the furniture, being careful, that's the challenge. ... A lot of these houses are museums, and you have to figure out how to move the grand piano, how to get to that window that goes up to the moon.''
You also have to deal with the homeowner.
''My customers are fussy,'' he says. ''They even admit that. They tell me they hire me because I'm fussy, too.''
That's one of the reasons Dr. Glass says he'll never franchise.
''What I do is so specialized. My customers know me and I know them. The secret of Dr. Glass's success is Dr. Glass.''
TEXT OF INFO BOX BEGINS HERE:
Perfection is panestaking
What's the secret to sparkling clean windows? Bregstone shares a few of his tips of the trade:
1. The squeegee. ''That's the big secret. The solution isn't that important. Any low-suds soap water works well. It's all in the squeegee.''
2. Replace the squeegee's rubber blades often. ''I spend a lot of time looking for just the right equipment.''
3. Surgical towels. ''They're very low lint and very absorbent. They have to be washed about 10 times before they're good for us. ... My favorites are green. The Chinese ones are lousy; the Russian ones are great but you can't find them. The most I have are from India.''
4. A good ladder. ''You want the right ladder. You want to concentrate on washing the windows, not on if you're going to fall.''