A tradition of trading

2008-07-17 00:00

I stepped into the cool interior of the store and felt momentarily disorientated, as though a child again, stepping into Friar’s store in rural Matabeleland. It looks the same — piles of goods stacked precariously, a veritable gold mine of nuggets waiting to be discovered. A treasure hunt, to be sure. From Hilton through Howick, Tweedie, Lidgetton, Lion’s River and Balgowan to Nottingham Road, the experience was repeated. Visiting general dealers’ stores felt like stepping back in time.

“Many of our faithful customers tell us we must never change. They want the store to stay exactly the same. Some call it a treasure trove. A woman came in who had lived here for 15 years but had never been in here. She found what she was looking for. Sometimes men come in just to smell the smell again. It’s a mixture of paraffin and tobacco they have known since they were children,” said Popeye Chohan, owner of Kubela General Dealer in Hilton. He and his wife, Hajra, have run the store since 1978, when Popeye’s father, Dawood, bought it. Some local general dealers’ stores have been owned by the same family for up to four generations, like Thokan’s Cash Store in Lion’s River and G. Hoosen and Sons of Nottingham Road.

According to Hassan Thokan, one of three brothers who own the family store, his grandfather opened the original store in the early 1890s when the first farmers were moving into the area. “Once upon a time you could go all the way from Shongweni to Volksrust and find a general dealer owned by a Muslim family near the railway station in every town. They always chose sites near the railway station because they didn’t own cars in those days,” he said. Goolam Hoosen, grandfather of Abbas, opened G. Hoosen and Sons general dealer in Nottingham Road in 1932. The store passed from him to his son, Goolam, and on to Abbas in 1948. He has now retired and the store has passed to his son, Imran, great-grandson of the original Goolam. I wondered why the local general dealers’ stores are commonly owned by Muslims, so Hoosen explained: “Many of the families that came out from India as passengers rather than indentured labourers were Muslim traders. Once they arrived here, they practised what they knew, which was trading.”

Riaz Safla, who runs the Tweedie Trading Store, is one of four brothers who are all involved in trade of one kind or another. His family rents the store from D. H. Kadwa who has retired to Durban. Safla’s father, Farouk, had a trading store in Weenen and, before him, Safla’s grandfather ran a store in Cecilia. “When the children needed to be educated, they moved to be closer to their schools,” he explained. A trader who may make the same move one day is Araafath Deen, who runs Lidgetton Cash Store on behalf of his father-in-law, Altaf Baig, who rents it. Deen has a young family so running the trading store suits him for now. Like many other families, Deen lives on the property and enjoys the convenience of being close to work. “I can close the store to go home for prayers and lunch, and being here means I can see my family.”

Deen confirmed what seems to be a common characteristic of general dealers: working long hours six or seven days a week. For the convenience of their customers, mostly black working people and farmers, these stores open early and stay open until after 5 pm. The kind of customers they serve does differ, depending on their position. Kubela in Hilton serves many domestic workers and Hilton residents, while the stores on the R103 Midlands Meander route enjoy passing trade from tourists and guests at local bed and breakfast establishments.

Most traders interviewed spoke of long-standing relationships with the surrounding farm owners and farm workers, which points to another common attribute and a key to their generations-long survival: personalised service and good customer relations. The Muslim faith seems to be an influence in this regard, as several traders spoke of trying to treat all customers with respect. “We try to dignify our customers from the youngest preschooler to the oldest pensioner and we train our staff to do the same,” said Hajra.

Islam influences another practice common to these general dealers: they do not charge interest. Some run accounts for their customers, while most allow “lay-bys” that let customers pay off items as they can, interest free. This is common practice with expensive purchases like furniture and large electrical goods, which, in keeping with personal service, traders will source to suit their customers’ needs. As Popeye explained: “If you cannot find something you want, we will try hard to get it for you.” He remembered with a smile some of the unusual items he has had to find, including a corn mill, a manual meat mincer, a simmer ring, a meat thermometer, a jaffle iron and a basting syringe.

Discussing the changes they have seen over the years, some traders mentioned a decline in customers caused by farms ceasing to operate and farm workers being laid off. Crime was a common topic as were ongoing price rises. Shelves in some of the stores were clearly not as full as they once were, testimony to the fact that business is not as good as it used to be. Emigration was also mentioned and Popeye spoke of people buying goods to take with them, particularly enamel kitchen goods and cast iron “potjie” pots. Positive developments have been the growth of tourism through the Meander and housing developments in places like Hilton, Howick and Nottingham Road that have brought new customers.

Some traders have introduced changes of their own. While some have stayed with the familiar “stuffed full to the ceiling” style of shop display, others like the stores in Lidgetton and Nottingham Road have changed to a supermarket layout. “Many customers prefer this as they can find what they want more easily. Some spend as much as an hour in the store looking at all the goods,” Deen said.

Looking to the future, some traders believe the family tradition will continue, while others are less certain, saying the future lies in the Almighty’s hands. Safla hopes that in time his family would buy Tweedie Trading Store, while Abbas Hoosen has two grandsons, but could not say if they would follow their father into the business. Thokan shrugged and said: “Education is important for young people today. They want to be able to pursue other careers if they choose to.” Encouraged by an uncle, G. H. Chohan, and their bookkeeper, A. D. Shaik, Popeye and Hajra bought their shop and an adjacent one under sectional title. They are grateful that they will be able to retire securely.

Hajra grinned knowingly as she said: “Something that does not change is impulse buying — people come in for one thing and they leave with several.” True to form, in addition to the photographs and information I came for, I left with something I had been unable to find for months: an ironing-board cover, and, on impulse, a grass broom. A treasure trove indeed.

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