END OF AN ERA - HARRODS OF HILTON CHANGES HANDS
Kubela Stores - described by some customers as the ‘Harrods of Hilton’ – is under new ownership.
After 44 years, Hajra and Popeye Chohan, have decided to step away from the general store which has been at the heart of the town for decades.
The couple told Village Talk that it hadn’t been an easy decision to make as they viewed their customers as extended family.
With Popeye now 73 and none of their immediate family wanting to take over the business, the Chohans have passed their baton to a young, energetic couple.
They are planning to offer customers a small supermarket space, in addition to the existing general store and hardware items which Kubela Stores is known for.
Asked how they originally came to own it, the Chohans who live in Northdale, Pietermaritzburg, said they spotted an advert in the Natal
Witness which said the shop was up for sale.
They then got the family lawyer, John Peter Rutsch, to act as their agent to buy it.
In the early days, Popeye and his father ran the business, with Hajra joining them later.
“There has been a lot of change in the last 44 years,” Hajra said, adding that in the beginning 99% of their trade was from domestic workers and gardeners working in the area.
“We also had a lot of support from the Sweetwaters community and the Cedara community,” she said. “Then, as time went on the Hilton community started to support us. They became part of us.”
From the start Kubela Stores has been a general store, selling everything from the black school uniform tunics worn by most African children to black and brown school shoes, groceries, blankets, pots, pans, crockery and cutlery.
For anyone who has grown up in a rural area, stores like these were like Aladdin’s cave of treasures, and in Hilton Kubela Stores was a magnet for pupils at Laddsworth who wanted to buy some sweet treats.
On Saturday, July 30, the Chohans found the store filled with many of those youngsters, who popped in to say hello and share their memories.
“We watched so many children grow up in front of our eyes,” Hajra said. “Some of them are now at varsity or already qualified.”
Many other customers came into the store to say their farewells and share memories of what they bought from Kubela Stores over the past 44 years.
It has been an emotional time for the Chohans, who have been blown away by the tributes which have been paid to them in recent weeks.
Among those who took to social media to share their thoughts was Phillippa Gordon Lycett, who said: “The best local store - the most obliging and kind owners; always with time for a dig for that quirky item, and always time for more than just a hello. You will be missed and I wish you well in your next adventure.”
Adi Olivier added: “Kubela Stores is a legendary institution in Hilton. Have always loved going to shop there as it almost seems frozen in time and reminds me of my childhood.”
Jenny Hammond said she had loved the fact they always seemed to have everything she was looking for. “Hankies, a whistle, braces, rain suit, they had it!,” she added.
Amanda Thorburn, meanwhile, said: “St Anne’s always sent their students there to buy school shoes … A very special general dealer and agree we will miss them in our village.”
Looking back over their four decades in Hilton, the Chohans recalled one occasion when an elderly gentleman came in to buy gumboots.
“One of the staff was helping him try on different sizes,” said Hajra. “It took him quite a while and Goodman had a lot of patience. Then the old man said: ‘Now my boy, I only want the left foot.’
“Goodman couldn’t believe it … but we explained to him that he had to buy both. We couldn’t sell just one.”
For the Chohans, the store has always been their home away from home.
“This was our home,” Hajra said. “At 6.30am you’re out of the house. The shop is open at 7am and home at 5am. Basically we went home to sleep.”
Both Hajra and Popeye thanked the Almighty for giving them the strength to run the store. “It is because of him we are here today,” they said, “and because of the customers. You don’t get a business without customers, and our customers were always right … even if they were wrong.”
The couple is also grateful to the Hilton community for protecting businesses in the town during the unrest in July last year; and to the other tenants in the Jacandra Centre, especially Mike Wilkinson, who have always been very helpful and supportive.