Over a cen­tury on the cut­ting edge

Yogi’s Bar­ber Shop, one of the old­est fam­ily-owned busi­nesses in the city, thrives on tra­di­tion

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

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.

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