Over a century on the cutting edge
Yogi’s Barber Shop, one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the city, thrives on tradition
ON THE face of it, there’s not much to the short plank Yogesh Govan retrieves from its spot against the wall and proffers with a gesture bordering on reverence.
Although “plank” is the wrong word for the stout, traysized artefact, polished to a gleam by long use, its four corners rounded with wear. It may have been covered once – small tacks still dot its circumference – but from the shine of its surface, it’s obvious that would have been a long time ago.
And age is the thing, the history of it. This object is actually a seat – or becomes one, placed across the chunky arms of the barber’s chair to raise the littler customers of Yogi’s Barber Shop to a sufficient height.
What’s remarkable about it is that it’s more than a century old, and has served four generations of this family of barbers. Govan dates the seat to 1914.
Up on the wall is a photograph of an elderly Ebrahim Josephs, who remembers sitting on this seat extension as a boy of 5 and having his hair cut by Yogesh Govan’s grandfather, Bhika, almost 70 years ago.
“He even remembers snagging his pants on one of those tacks,” Govan said, noting that Josephs still comes to Yogi’s for his regular cut, which, as a lifetime customer, he gets free of charge these days.
There’s an almost bistro feel – hip and bustling – to Yogi’s on Buitengracht Street, the barbers quietly preoccupied, intent as baristos, customers coming and going, some waiting their turn at the bench along the Dorp Street window and Yogi himself greeting familiars, welcoming newcomers and managing the flow with the relish of an impresario.
The story of Yogi’s began a long way back and far away.
Govan’s great-grandfather, Morar Jaga, was the first of the family to take the adventurous step of leaving his home in the village of Sarbhon, halfway between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in the Indian state of Gujarat, and sailing to Africa.
The exact date of his arrival is uncertain, but Govan estimates it to have been in the late 1800s. The earliest photograph – one of a “time-line” of framed images on the walls of Yogi’s – shows him outside his barber shop, in Uitenhage, in 1910.
He returned home to Sarbhon about 10 years later, but before the decade was out, his son Bhika – Govan’s grandfather – set out, this time bound for the Cape.
He opened his first barber shop at 162 Loop Street in 1930, trading there until 1939 before moving to new premises at 85-87 Buitengracht Street. He remained there until 1955, when “a great opportunity arose” to buy the property where Yogi’s now stands.
The politics of the day might have thrown a spanner in the works; under the Group Areas Act, only whites were allowed to buy central city property.
But there was a way round the problem, Govan recalled.
“One of my grandfather’s barbers was a Christian gentleman and so, on the strength of a hand-shake and the barber’s good faith, the property was put in his name, and the shop opened.” The year was 1957.
Govan’s father Hargovan – affectionately known as Harry – joined the business in the late 1950s. His ambition, however, lay in hairdressing and, though he initially worked side-by-side with his father, he took himself off to Germany for much of the 1960s to learn the art.
“It was his goal to combine a barber shop with a hairdresser, and when he returned to Cape Town, he opened Salon Harry alongside the barbershop.
“And both are still going… I run Yogi’s and my brother, Dinesh, runs Salon Harry. We are the fourth generation. It’s still going strong.”
Hargovan Govan died in 1989 and, after matriculating, Yogesh entered the business in 1992. In fact, he started out with his brother, doing hairdressing, “but, after six months, I decided I’d prefer to be a barber”.
The two brothers worked together for 14 years – in which time the Buitengracht-facing portion of the property was let out to a café. In all that time, however, Yogesh Govan nurtured the ambition to re-establish a traditional barber shop, which is what he did in October 2006.
He started out with one other barber, who had come out from India, but who has since returned.
“Today, we have six chairs and eight barbers – who rotate – and between 1 800 and 2 000 clients a month.”
There are two rules: no appointments – it’s all walk-in trade – and cash only.
“I always know a new customer,” Govan laughed, “when he takes out his card.”
There’s also no dilly-dallying with shampoos and blow driers.
“We work with the good old clipper, we do all the cuts, beard trims, cut-throat shaving… but it’s an in-out barber shop.”
Govan said he was toying with introducing wifi as an additional service – pointing to the bench of waiting customers, he noted, “You see? Three on cellphones”, but was determined to stick as closely as possible to a traditional barber shop.
Part of that, the almost homely familiarity of the place, was his tradition of opening up early on Saturday with a tray of on-the-house koeksusters freshly made by an old friend in the Bo-Kaap for the early birds who were always there, regular as clockwork. “That’s a tradition,” he said. And tradition is very much a part of the decor – in addition to family photographs there are framed tools used by Govan’s forebears.
One faintly mortifying collection of artefacts is a muchused strop, framed with three antique cut-throat razors – one of which was Govan’s father’s, and which Govan himself used to use, too.
There’s a nasty gash in the leather strop, and a chastening story to match it.
“Once when I was a young boy, my father went down- stairs to have some coffee and I decided to try out the strop. Well, I managed to cut a chunk out of it, and he caught me in the act.”
The indiscretion earned Govan a hiding, but left his barbering ambitions undimmed. He has been in the trade now for 24 years.
As for a fifth generation, Govan laughs. “I don’t have children yet… but if I do have a child, God willing, I hope he’s a son. And I won’t give him a rattle to play with. He can play with clippers so he grows up to be a barber.”
Yogesh ‘Yogi’ Govan, custodian of the barber shop Yogi’s, in Buitengracht Street.
Morar Jaga in Uitenhage in 1910, the first of four generations of Govan family barbers in South Africa.
Govan’s father, Hargovan, right – affectionately known as Harry – with two of his barbers.