Monday, May 25, 2009

The soul of retail?

Lekkersing SupermaketA recent lunch at a new restaurant in the trendy Melrose Arch centre in Johannesburg got me thinking. The food was good, the decor tasteful & the setting rather pleasant. It overlooked a brand new piazza and was flanked by other restaurants equally modern, each with its own particular theme and style. Yet there was something lacking. I tried to pinpoint the problem, which lead me back to my teenage years…(cue “flashback” music)

My first job was at Hillbrow Records. I had to write an exam to get the position. It was a music quiz with questions like “Name the members of the Beatles & the instruments they played” and “Who composed Pictures at an Exhibition?”. I must have passed, because I got the job. For me it was heaven. I’d spent so many hours browsing, and blown all of my pocket money in that store, that it felt only right that I should work there.

Records were still the thing then. CDs had just been introduced, but only a few wealthy music lovers could afford them. The shop had row upon row of wooden record bins which contained everything from the latest hits to the most obscure bands.

My favourite part of the store was right at the back: The sale bins.There was nothing better in the world than to go into Hillbrow Records, with its tattered carpets, bad lighting and surly staff, and rummage through dusty records in those bargain bins. When you found a gem (and you almost always found something interesting) you felt like an archaeologist who has discovered the the holy grail. It was a sense of achievement. You’d found something amazing, that others had overlooked through their ignorance and sloppy  sleuth work.

The staff at Hillbrow records were an interesting bunch of scraggly punks, hippies, varsity students,musicians and other oddities. But they had one thing in common: They were music fanatics. They ate, drank (quite a bit actually) and breathed music. There were no computers, but they knew what was in stock and where to find it. They also knew albums related to the one you were looking for. And bands you’d never heard of that played the same genre. Better.

Hillbrow Records had no theme. No interior designer had put their artistic flair into its decor, no catchy slogans, no glossy posters and no fake smiles. But it was a place that lured you in, and kept you there for hours. Hillbrow Records earned the right to be great, because it paid its dues and developed an identity and a soul.

A local CD chainIn those days there were very few franchises. Hillbrow had an array of interesting coffee shops, delis, bakeries and restaurants, each with its own unique character, usually thrust upon it by a proud and dedicated (and often rather quirky) business owner. There was Carlo’s with old black & white photos of Joburg, bodybuilders and movie stars lining the walls.  Cafe de Paris, Cafe Vien, Three Sisters.. Mini Cine used to show cult movies. All these little dives had something.

And the came the shopping malls. Generic. Tiled. The same shops. The same food. The same music. The same movies. These malls are full of trendy, shiny new restaurants all designed with one intention: To replicate. And perhaps the problem is one of intent.  Do you open a shop or a restaurant because you want to get rich and take over the world, make your brand a household name? Or do you do it because you have a passion? A passion for people, music, cooking, fashion…

The thing is, these franchises are usually good.The service, the food, the decor and the goddamned theme have to be good or else they won’t make money. But good is not good enough for me. I want real, not contrived. I don’t want to walk into a store that plays Ella Fitzgerald because some advertising exec sitting in an office miles away has decided that Ella fits the style of the store. I don’t want to walk into a place that feels like a product of market research.

Piccolo Prima Donna

Fortunately there are places in Jozi that still have soul, if you know where to look. Here are a few of my favourites (in my neighbourhood). Feel free to add to the list.

1. Zahava’s, (Norwood) My favourite breakfast spot. The feel is rather bohemian, the food Israeli/Mediterranean.The coffee is damn good. There is a lovely outside area and they often have live music on a Sunday – usually quiet jazz or blues & folk. When I was looking for a link to the restaurant I came across this post on Hello Peter it sums up the place beautifully!

2. The Radium Beerhall (Orange Grove) The oldest surviving pub in Johannesburg, this place just oozes character. Customers range from young to old and represent a complete mix of society. They make great Portuguese style pub food and also do a fine pizza. Live music a few nights a week.

3. Hi Fidelity (Killarney Mall) This CD/DVD store happens to be in a mall, but it still passes the test. They have a fantastic selection of CDs & DVDs and the staff are knowledgeable (They know who Emir Kusturica is for a start!)

4. Chapter 1 Books (Norwood) A great little 2nd hand book store. They also have a good selection of 1st editions and Africana

5. Piccolo Prima Donna (Norwood) I’ve been supporting this place for years. The food is consistently good. Italian, with a difference. It is warm, cosy and relaxed.



  1. A few people on Twitter added these cool places:
    Nice in Parkhurst.
    Cool Runnings - Mellville
    The Zoo Lake Bowling Club - Parktown

  2. Ratz in Melville
    Six in Melville (when Rob & Alicia were there)
    Catz Pyjamas in Melville
    (can you tell I lived in Melville once upon a time?)