Remembering the humble corner cafeComment on this story
Cape Town - Remember when you could get a handful of star sweets, mint lumps and éclair toffees for 10c at the corner cafe? The shopkeeper knew the customers by name, and would tell your parents if you misbehaved around the arcade games. Cape Town may have modernised since then, but there are still a few shopkeepers who remember those times.
Allie Allie, owner of Latvian Cafe in Zonnebloem, was 20 when he opened his shop in 1966.
“Times were different then. There were no malls. Everyone knew each other and you were free to walk anywhere. There were some ruffians around, but they didn’t steal or bother anyone,” says Allie.
On the top of the fridges, there’s a line of the old 1.5-litre glass cold drink bottles. He keeps a framed copy of an invoice for a consignment of cigarettes dated April 27, 1968. He paid R30.56 for 34 cartons from Atlas Trading. He’d sell the cartons for R2 each. A loaf of bread cost 50c.
The 69-year-old has seen the face of the community change. Some old customers are still around, now aged. But the area has attracted a lot of young residents who have settled a stone’s throw from the city centre.
Allie has had to move with the times, but there are some traditions he upholds. Every Sunday morning his wife, Fatiema Allie, bakes fresh koeksisters. People come from as far as Sea Point, he says, with their plastic containers to buy them at R2 each.
Allie’s always been in that community. When his three children were younger, they helped out in the shop on weekends and during school holidays. “But they’re all grown now. They’re educated and are working. They’re not going to take over this shop.”
Allie isn’t looking to retire anytime soon because running the shop keeps his mind active. He believes if he stays home, he’ll age faster.
The needs of the community may have changed, but Allie feels there’s always going to be room for the corner cafés. “Times change, people change. You just have to go with the flow,” says Allie.
Abdurahman Parker, 51, is a second generation shopkeeper in Grassy Park. His father – Hassan Ahmed Parker – built Parker’s Superette and opened his doors in 1959.
Parker grew up in the shop. “I played around the shop, helped around the shop and ate around the shop,” he says.
Parker and his older brother, Ebrahim, remember that in the 1960s, there was much ado for one week of the year. During Shopping Week, everyone decorated their businesses, and reps from all over would hand out samples of products. There were prizes for children and adults alike. It was a party week, with a lot of fanfare. The family was uprooted from Vasco under the Group Areas Act and settled in Grassy Park in 1958.
“This area was totally different when we came here, just bush and clay pits. My father built this place from scratch,” says Ebrahim.
The younger Parker was 20 when he started working in the shop full-time, and eventually took over the business.
“We sold everything from needle to anchor. We still sell most of the same things today.”
But the ever-rising prices of fuel, food and electricity have had an effect on Parker’s customers, and his business.
“There’s no loyalty anymore. If it’s 1c cheaper, they’ll go for that. And I don’t blame them. Times are tough,” says Parker.
While many shopkeepers have opted to sell their businesses, Parker will hang on for as long as he can. He says when offered a million or two, it seems like a lot at the time. But if you’re still young and have no other income, that money won’t last very long. Many of his peers regret selling, says Parker.
He doesn’t know what the future holds, but the business has been good to him and his family. Parker put his two children, now aged 19 and 17, through school. His son Yaseen, like his father, also helped out in the shop.
“Sometimes it was fun, working here with family and having friends to keep me company. But I’m not going to take over. I’m looking at the medical field,” says the boy.
Parker knows there’s nobody to run the business when he retires, but for now, he’s still “hanging on”.