A counter from one of the last old bicycle shops

The haberdashery counter that Huisraad Modern offers this week is a special one, since it was rescued from a bicycle shop that closed in Bellville recently.

When we say “bicycle shop”, we’re not talking about the professional retailers that put up shop since the early nineties under the name of some former Rapport Tour champion rider. These modern style bicycle shops focused mainly on road racing or the emerging sport of that time, mountain bike racing.
No, we’re talking about the old bicycle shops of which each town had one or even two. We’re talking about the traders, in many cases an Indian family, who sold back-peddle “dikwielfietse” or black delivery bikes with the steel cage on the front and the small front wheel. Or Raleigh Choppers, those American inspired falling machines that kept the district surgeons afloat in many small towns. 

The interior of “MC Ellis se Werkswinkel” in Beaufort West. The way any bicycle shop worth its salt should look.

Besides Raleigh bicycles, you could buy bikes with brand names like Western Flyer, BSA, and Humbers. It was also the time when the BMX craze first blew over from the USA and many young boys got their first BMXs from these shops. 

A racer from a previous era in Bellville Cycles. [Picture by Desmond Louw for Rushsports]
I grew up with Balfour Cycle Works in Balfour in Mpumalanga. My dad taught us to fix our own punctures in a ritual involving matches, tablespoons, a little grater, a bucket with water and, of course, patch and solution. We bought our patch and solution from Balfour Cycle Works in Station Street, which was the Indian part of town.  

It was a narrow and dark shop with a high red tin roof, the building dating from the 1890’s. On the right-hand side, right next to the door where you entered, was a small and ancient woman in a sari dress on a chair hunched over a copy of the Quran that looked like it dated from the middle ages. I remember thinking that she must be one of those people who knew the Quran off by heart in Arabic, since she was always there, always reading the Quran, rocking forwards and backwards. I was too afraid to ask.

Behind a whole row of these haberdashery counters was her son, a slight bearded man with prayer cap on his head. His name was Muhamed. He was not a smiler or talker, but the mystery of his shop drew you in. The cascading drawers in these haberdashery counters were filled with many marvels. Yes, you could buy bicycle things here, like a headlight with a dynamo that generated power against the wheel. However, bicycles were but one subdivision of the wonder going down in that place. 

You could for instance buy a 'whoopie' cushion there, or vile stink bombs in little ampules. We once blew all the patrons and “ghosts” out of a “haunted house” in the cellar of the school hall stage at the school fair with a single one of those stink bombs. 

You could also buy sneezing powder in this shop. Yes, sneezing powder. To prank people with. I still cannot work out how to prank someone with sneezing powder, but there it was with a drawing of a fat man on the packet levitating in the midst of a bomb of a sneeze. When our Standard Four science teacher, Meneer Britz, found out that we were purchasing sneezing powder from “the Indians,” he launched into a tirade about the risks of buying chemical substances from people who were most likely communists. 

This was after we pranked this same Meneer Britz with a cigarette firecracker, which we also purchased from Balfour Cycle Works. They were tiny carton triangles that you could insert into the nipped Life (yes, that was a cigarette brand!) cigarettes that Meneer Britz left in one of those perlemoen shell ashtrays on his desk. It blew open a circle of naked skin in his moustache and beard around the part of his lips with which he was taking a deep pull on his cigarette, just outside the classroom door while we were labouring on a test. The leftovers of the cigarette dangling from his shocked mouth looked like a canon barrel that exploded. He had to work through a considerable amount of rage after the incident.

You could also buy dangerous weapons here, like BB and Daisy rifles, that my dad would never allow us to get, and ketties (little hand slingshots) that were far better than our own handmade ketties – they were like professional versions with “haas-rek” elastic bands and a bracket that fitted over your arm so that you can pull back the projectile that you were shooting much further. I remember word going around that you could shuffle a small antelope of its mortal coil with a well-aimed ball-bearing flying from one of those. 

Talking about handmade ketties and “haas-rek” (directly translated as “rabbit elastic band”), Balfour Cycle Works was the only place within a radius of 50 km that you could get proper “haas-rek”, which was twenty times better than the pieces of stretchable car tube that poor kids made their ketties from. Haas-rek was a square piece of rubber in diameter and you could find it in the superior white or the more usual red. “Wit haas-rek is die beste, my china.”
Years later I was disappointed to find out that “haas-rek” was merely a standard industrial seal that was used in big machines and factories. It was not made with precision shooting in mind at all.

If you were musically inclined you could also buy a “trompie” there, known in other parts of the world as a Jew’s Harp, which made a hell of an annoying and monotonous “twoing-twaing” sound in die wrong mouth. Or a mouth organ, which made an equally reprehensible racket when applied by an amateur. Or you could buy fake Barbie doll sets, new soles for your shoes, a variety of fireworks, itching powder, gramophone needles, sewing kits, kites, combination locks, and two hundred more things. And of course, Okapi pocketknives, the affordable self-defence system of any self-respecting plattelander who ever had to cross a deserted veld.

When I tried to make contact with Balfour Bicycle Works on their landline, I heard a message that said, “the telephone number that you called, is not available”. I heard from other old timers that the shop closed four years ago. If I find more information about the family, I will add it to this story.

When Huisraad Modern was launched, six years ago, our first trip to look for furniture took us to Beaufort West and one of the most authentic old bicycle shops in the country: “MC Ellis se Werkswinkel”. I really hope this shop in Bird Street is still surviving, because you can not pass through Beaufort West one more time without dropping in to see the literally larger than life Tim Ellis behind the counter, and to see the counter itself, and the rest of his crazy shop. Tim is the third-generation owner – his grandpa turned it into a bicycle shop in 1934.

“MC Ellis se Werkswinkel”, established in 1934 in Beaufort West, still fixes the bicycles of the working men.

As a plattelandse bicycle shop should be, it is a holy mess of bicycles and frames and wheels and all kinds of other bits. It is more like mountain of frames and wheels and spokes in the middle of the shop. There’s hardly place to walk around in the shop anymore. Tim even has a bicycle hanging from the roof with wood rims. They do not make those anymore. Besides, a bicycle shop is not a bicycle shop, if it doesn’t have at least thirty artifacts hanging from the roof.
He also has a swell collection of old enamel advertising signs, most of which are now highly sought after, but after some tentative inquiring about his willingness to sell, we realised that Oom Tim is not parting with his signs, which is good and right. 

 Top: Tim Ellis in the Beaufort West shop that his oupa established in 1934, “MC Ellis se Werkswinkel”.
Bottom: George Smith, the bicycle mechanic in “MC Ellis se Werkswinkel” in Beaufort West, fixed our son’s bicycle in 20 minutes. It was R105-00 to fix a buggered jockey and fit a new back tyre.

Back to Bellville Cycles that closed recently. We heard there was a haberdashery counter available in a shop that was closing down, and I rushed down to Voortrekker Road to find, to my dismay, that it was Bellville Cycles. They might not have sold sneezing powder or 'whoopie' cushions, but Bellville cycles was one of the last remaining old style “fietswinkels” in the Cape. And one of the last of the old specialist shops in Voortrekker. Since 1979 it was owned by the Gous family, first by Frede Gous, and later by his son Fanie. 

But people will remember this shop for the warm and efficient service they received from Fanie’s aunt, Sandra Oosthuizen, and the elaborately inked bicycle mechanic, Sydney Curnow, who has fixed any kind of bicycle over there at Bellville Cycles, for more than twenty years.

We are proud that the haberdashery counter from this shop will now have a new life with a new owner...

Sydney Curnow, the mechanic at Bellville Cycles for more than 20 years. If Sydney could not fix it, it was done for. Picture by Desmond Louw for Rushsports

Sandra Oosthuizen from Bellville Cycles was the warmest and friendliest shop assistant in any bicycle shop in the world. Picture by Desmond Louw for Rushsports.



-Ali van Wyk

1 comment

  • Dorette

    Lieflike blog, die nostalgie loop darem dik by ons almal as dinge in die hede so k*K gaan…

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