Our community: Enduring entrepreneurs

During my regular lockdown exercise walk around my building, The Franklin in Pritchard Street, I realise how much I miss the hustle and bustle in my neighbourhood of the many small shops and street vendors selling clothes, housewares, muthi and vegetables. With zeal and determination they serve the people who live or work in the area and the passers-by on their way from the Bree taxi rank into town. They provide me with a profound sense of community and belonging; to be waved at and stopped for a chat by the shop owners on Helen Joseph and Diagonal Street makes me feel welcome and secure.

These shops are all closed now and there are hardly any passers-by. Walking up and down the seven floors of our parking garage the only sounds I hear are the clatter of pots and pans and children playing in the Carmel Building flats at the other side of Gardee’s Arcade. In the Arcade only Gelvan’s Pharmacy operates normal business hours under the special dispensation for essential services.

Over the past six years I’ve gotten to know owner and pharmacist Hemant Vallabh a bit. Not only do we share our birthday but I’ve also received excellent service from him and his friendly staff members. They’ve dispensed the medication I needed and have printed and scanned the endless documents required for my Home Affairs applications. When a couple of winters ago I was looking for help for one of our homeless neighbours who had suffered a nasty injury they provided free bandages and painkillers.

In these bizarre lockdown times I regularly drop in for some human connection and a much-needed neighbourly chat. And knowing that most shops in Diagonal Street and Gardee’s Arcade have a long trading history in the city, I took the opportunity last week to find out a bit more about the origins of Gelvan’s Pharmacy from Mr Vallabh.

He told me that when he bought the pharmacy in 2007, after previously having operated a pharmacy in Eldorado Park, he became the sixth owner of Gelvan’s Pharmacy. He pulled out the photograph of the founder of the business, Louis Gelvan, who opened his first pharmacy in Sophiatown in the 1940s where it serviced all race groups. Following the forced removals from Sophiatown based on the Group Areas Act, he moved the business to Diagonal Street in the 1950s. The next move was to Gardee’s Arcade where it has been in operation since the 1980s.

We also had a look at Mr Gelvan’s old prescription book from 1972 where we found the first entry to be a prescription for 24 tablets of paracetamol to be taken four times a day. It also contains the recipes for mixtures that Mr Gelvan prepared including his own brand of Gelpharm Hairgrower and remedies against bedwetting and stomach aches. Every now and again Mr Vallabh is visited by descendants of Mr Gelvan who want to see how the business is doing today. Mr Vallabh isn’t sure when Mr Gelvan first sold the business but he does know that he moved to Canada where he passed away at age 93 some 10 years ago.

We spoke a bit more about the challenges of operating a small business in town where clients really appreciate the personal attention they receive and the easy access of the shop but where it is becoming increasingly hard to compete with big brands like Dischem and Clicks. Witnessing Mr Vallabh’s passion when he speaks about his business and the dedication with which he and his staff open their doors every day to serve their clients has me rooting for him and all the other entrepreneurs in town to make it through these difficult times and thrive going forward.

Josine Overdevest – April 2020

More info about the history of Diagonal Street and Gardee Arcade: http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/preservation-diagonal-street

Laurice Taitz, one of Mr Gelvan’s descendants, wrote about her experience visiting the pharmacy here: https://todoinjoburg.co.za/2009/10/why-coffee-is-the-key-to-urban-renewal/

5 thoughts on “Our community: Enduring entrepreneurs

  1. Ros Bresgi (mr Gelvan ‘s daughter) says:

    Another Pharmacy called Gelvan’s pharmacy was named for my dad as a tribute to his good name among the community. This is located in the Oriental Plaza in Frededorp.
    Mr Gelvan opened the Pharmacy on Diagnol Street after his customer base was relocated to Sowetu. Mr. Guardee offered him a store of his choice in a primarily store complex rented by Store keepers of Indian decent. By giving my dad a store, Mr. Guardee was thanking my dad for providing free medicine to a boy of Indian decent whose family could not afford his medication. The stores were rebuild and Mr. Guardee was honoured by the Mall being called, Guardee Mall.

    1. Josine says:

      Thank you for sharing your wonderful additions to the story! I’ll share them with Mr Vallabh, he is really proud to be continuing Mr Gelvan’s legacy.

  2. Ros Bresgi says:

    Mr. Gelvan’s first store was in Sophia town. His customers were relocated to Sowetu, Mr Guardee offered the Diagonal And Prichard Street store to my dad.

    Sophiatown and the downtown Diagonal Street property were gifted to Mr. Tobiansky and Mr. Guardee respectively as a reward for favours rendered to Paul Kruger, the president of South Africa. Toby Street and Sophie Street in Sophiatown we’re named for Mr. Tobiansky’s sisters.

  3. Joe abrams says:

    Who is Roz Bresgi?

    1. Josine says:

      Good day Joe, Roz Bresgi is Mr Gelvan’s daughter.

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