If it was not for an over priced haberdashery counter with potential but an owner unwilling to negotiate in the CBD of Vereeniging, we would probably not have spotted this one in the store next door. It was not on offer and still being used as a counter and camouflaged by merchandise stacked around it.
We found a couple of great vintage pieces in this shop, belonging to the amiable and handsome Mohammed Sahib: Two mid century book cases, an old sewing cabinet, a modernist chrome and glass coffee table and a somewhat eccentric red steel garden chair. We were ready to pay for these when we saw the unit.
“Whoa, look at this!” Ali said. And Mohammed promptly invited us to make an offer on it.
“I must speak to the toppie fist, but he is in India,” Mo said, since this counter was a family heirloom that belonged to his grandfather, Goolam Sahib, who used to be a wool merchant in Vanderbijlpark. As we drove back to Bapsfontein, Mohammed called to say that his father, Ahmed, agreed on the price. Two days later, we drove the 110 km back to V-town to pick up the cabinet.
The unit, we estimated, was close to 100 years old. It had structural integrity but the glass top was cracked and held together with meters of ancient tape and a plastic sheet.
The oregan pine base, drawers and the frame for the drawers, were painted with a dark varnish. The history of the cabinet was written in the scratches and dents and the small inscriptions made by children who grew up in the shop and the more recent stickers that indicated “batteries”, “chargers”, “fuses”, and so on.
At this point we had to make restoration decisions. Were we going to try and restore it to as close as when it was new, or were we just going to clean it up properly and repair the dysfunctional parts?
We wanted to keep most of the history and authenticity that was written in the marks, especially on the wood. Despite a small crack in the corner of the front glass panel, we decided not to replace it, since the century old glass had such a unique imperfect texture. But the glass top had to be replaced.
The delicate frame in which the drawers fit had to be carefully repaired with panel pins, small screws and wood glue. We stained the chaffed parts of the wood, varnished the drawers, sanded the base and painted it with a mix of stain and wood sealer. We cleaned the brass with a mix of tartaric acid and soap, a recipe inherited from Ali’s grandmother. Neighbours and family members gave advice and lent hands.
Replacing the glass top was a precarious and nerve-racking exercise. Like with so many custom made units the space wasn’t 100% square, but we managed to get a piece of glass that fitted. We had to turn the cabinet upside down for this exercise. The top was kept in place with quarter round strips nailed into a very brittle wooden strip and some crumbling old window putty.
It was a great moment after two days when we carefully put the case on it’s feet again. The new top was securely in place. We put back the shelf rack and fastened it, slid back the twenty drawers, all with new glass panels. The brass was clean and shiny and the base good as new. This old haberdashery counter was ready to be appreciated by a new generation.
To buy this counter, click here.