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 – 15 April 2020

Update 27 April 2020: After publishing the story about the history of Gelvans Pharmacy in Gardee’s Arcade in Johannesburg, it “got legs” as one of my friends called it and reached all the way to the descendants of Mr Gelvan in Canada!

They added some interesting historical facts to the story including that Mr Gelvan had received the store in Diagonal Street from Mr Gardee as a token of gratitude for the service he provided the Indian community in the area like the free medicine he gave to a boy who’s family could not afford it.

One of his granddaughters wrote that Mr Gelvan was one of the happiest, kindest and genuinely goodhearted humans she has ever known. She shared the amazing fact that his beloved wife, Lilie Gelvan, is still alive at 104! Where Mr Gelvan was the pharmacist who managed the relationships with his customers and of course filled all the prescriptions, Mrs Gelvan was actually the boss who ran the operations of the business.

Dr Mitch Adams is this granddaughter’s partner and he was touched by the connection between the ongoing generous role of Gelvan’s Pharmacy in the inner city community and his campaign to highlight the power of kindness, appreciation and gratitude with respect to people’s health and that of their communities.

I’m grateful that the story found its way to Canada and connected to such a special family and campaign.

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/

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