The identity of Melville has shifted significantly since the land was proclaimed in 1896. The suburb is currently a bohemian area filled with hipsters, entrepreneurs and bargain hunters, while thrifting has been in Melville for the past 20 years.

The ‘Melville strip’, 7th Street, is home to some of the trendiest restaurants in Johannesburg with the odd thrift store sandwiched in-between. Thrift stores have remained a constant throughout the evolving Melville area.

IF YOU turn left off 7th Street, and venture two shops down on 4th Avenue, you will find Bounty Hunters Charity Shop. The shop has been around for the past two decades, keeping the idea of thrifting in style. Two weeks after it opened the shop took on a whole new venture and doubled as a cat shelter. 

THRIFT: The entrance of Bounty Hunters Charity shop on 4th Avenue in Melville.   

Gail Millard, the store owner, has been in the thrift shop business for 22 years. Gail started her first thrift shop, Hope Charity, in 1996 on 2nd Avenue. The store was going strong, with 20 different charities involved in providing stock in return for profits. 

After six years, in 2002, Gail was forced to find a new place to house her business as the space had become too small. This was due to the high level of stock that Gail receives daily, “I have received donations every day for the past 22 years, so it doesn’t matter how fast I am selling stock, there is always more coming.

Her new establishment was on 4th Avenue, above May’s Chemist. Gail stayed on 4th Avenue for 11 years until 2013, when the same problem of space eventually arose again. 

Gail unflatteringly describes herself as a “barren spinster”. “I have no husband and no children. These cats that you see here are my children and this place is my whole life. I am here 365 days a year. It never stops.”  

The 65-year-old looks exhausted when she eventually looks up from the boxes of books that she is unpacking. Her strawberry blonde hair is cropped quite short to make it easier to handle, her glasses sitting comfortably as if they have been part of her face with its smile lines, for years.

Her standard attire of a light blue top fits well on her medium-sized frame. It is as regular as her oldest customer. Gail says that it is a crazy time right now at the thrift store as a book shop down the road has closed and is sending all its stock to Bounty Hunters. “I have been working non-stop, that’s why my hair looks like this and I haven’t slept a wink,” she says, as she starts to clean one of the two cages that house four newly found kittens.

There is no break, Gail never stops. She is either unpacking or pricing stock, feeding a kitten or catching up with a customer.

Upon entering Bounty Hunters, the feeling of overwhelming chaos instantly hits you. Should you pick up the book on the floor, fold the blouse on the table or straighten the pictures piled on top of each other? If you suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, I would highly recommend that you back track and find your nearest Woolies with its order.

CAT LADY: Gail Millard, a cat lover and thrift shop owner. 
CHAOS: The first floor of Bounty Hunters Charity Shop is cluttered with donations.                      

Crossing the threshold thrusts you into madness. There is a narrow walkway to the first floor that has a range of items littering the tables along the way, books, picture frames and baskets. Up four steps and you are on the first floor and bam! The smell hits you.

The smell is somewhere near a cross between a vet’s rooms and a petting zoo, which is unconventional for a charity shop. Your eyes can’t instantly place where the smell comes from because all that’s visible are clothes: jackets, shirts, pants and more jackets hanging on multiple rails that hang from the ceiling all along the first floor.

WATCH: A video about Bounty Hunters Charity Shop and their regular and first-time customer experiences.                  

Towards the middle of the store there is an overflowing food bowl with an even larger water bowl next to it. This is strange for a thrift shop because they aren’t for sale. A quick turn around and it all clicks! Sleeping peacefully on a few crates of books is a cat, a caramel, white and black spotted one that is fast asleep.

There are quite a few cats, a black Halloween cat sleeping on a box of unopened stock. A grey and white spotted one cleaning herself on a set of picture frames perched high above the rest.

There is a staircase to the left of the store that takes you to the second floor, which houses less chaos. There are shelves that are crammed full with many different books of every genre under the sun.

Glasses, plates and other crockery are also neatly on display. At the far end of the second floor there are four litter boxes for the cats to avoid any accidents in the store. Gail’s thrift stores and cats have been in Melville for 22 years. 

COMFY: A grey and white cat has her bed on a desk to catch the afternoon sun.     

Gail lovingly cuddles the grey and white cat that was atop the picture frames on the second floor, as she narrates the story of the first cat at Bounty Hunters.

She scratches her head trying to remember every detail, “Almost two years from the day we opened, I had an elderly lady come in with a truck load of donations – she had lived in a mansion of a house for years and was now downsizing. It took her two truck trips to bring everything, but she couldn’t find a home for her cat.

So naturally by the second load, I couldn’t let her just put the cat down, so I told her I would take the cat too.” Gail orchestrated an adoption to a suitable family within two weeks.

Bounty Hunters currently has 50 to 60 cats residing on the property, all having been brought to Gail. The cats are found either in the Melville or Westdene area. “Anybody in the area knows what I do here so any rescue missions or cats left in dustbins are brought here,” adds Gail. Gail only accepts cats from either Melville or Westdene otherwise she says she would end up with hundreds of cats.

“I’m of the opinion that if you can help in some way then you should, so that is why I do this. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) are overrun and cannot handle the large number of strays and abandoned cats so I do my part,” she adds.

Some people have a problem with the initiative, it being an unorthodox way of running an informal cat shelter, says Gail. “The customers generally only complain about the cats when they don’t get a discount on the stock.” Gail adds as she rushes around the store to help a customer.

Gail usually brushes such characters off but on other days she verbally lays into them, “If I haven’t taken my meds and then I can really fly off the handle,” She laughs as she realises that she may not have taken her meds that morning. 

She contributes to various outreach programmes that work off the thrift shop. One programme involves assisting other charities, which send stock to Bounty Hunters which is marked with each charity’s code and when the stock is sold the profits are sent back to the charity.

Gail started with 20 charities but she says due to a high level of theft between the drivers of the charities and her ex-employees she has cut down the number of charities to three.

Most of the profits from sold stock currently goes to the upkeep of the cats in the form of food and vets’ bills. Individuals that donate to the store decide who they would like the profits donated to; either they select one of the three charities, or they select for their profits to be donated to caring for the cats at Bounty Hunters.

SALE: A display of small items priced between R1 and R5 on the second floor of Bounty Hunters. 

In addition, Gail assists individuals that help with the cat shelter project. An elderly woman in Westdene fosters four cats for the project, and receives a discount on cat food. Gail normally sells her cat food for R160 but she only charges the woman R5.  This allows her to continue fostering the cats.

Lynne Millard, Gail’s sister, also helps with the cat sheltering project. Lynne works as a masseuse in the Westdene area and is also an animal lover. According to Gail, “Lynne can book her appointments when she wants to so she has time to help me, especially with kittens as we both know how to bottle feed.”

Lynne also fosters some of the cats until Gail can find them adequate homes. “If I am struggling to find a home she will take them on so it gives me a bit more time,” Gail says. 

Bounty Hunters sees a variety of people every day. An Indian man, dressed in a light blue shirt and smart black pants piles R5 books into a basket. A middle-aged white man picks out an evening jacket.

Pierre Roestorf, 65, retired from the South African Broadcasting Corporation after a colourful 30 years as a lighting director at the broadcaster. He has regularly visited Gail’s various stores for the past 22 years.

“I always pass by here as there are interesting things here. Just yesterday, I bought a six-pack of beautiful crystal glasses. All I do is spare five minutes on my daily stroll to check if anything new has come in,” he says.

Although it may seem to be all sunshine and rainbows in the Melville community, there are mixed opinions in Melville about the work that Gail does.

The Animals Protection Act states that only two cats can reside on a commercial property. However, according to Gail, the Animal Anti-Cruelty League and the SPCA have visited Bounty Hunters and have commended her for the work she is doing for cats in Melville. 

“Obviously many people have phoned to report me but the people at the SPCA have always been quite grateful for what I do here. It helps them a lot and, quite frankly, it’s the least I can do,” Gail says. 

There are two restaurants that flank Bounty Hunters – Mootee and The Melville Grill Lounge. Peter Good, the Mootee owner, says that initially he was a bit skeptical about the cats, especially having them so close to his restaurant.

MEOW: A Halloween cat that’s resident at the Bounty Hunters thrift shop in Melville.
Photo: Elizabeth-Jane Ringrose.

“We had our worries early on but Gail was great, she put up extra barricading along the wall that’s closest to the charity store. She also comes past every second day to check if there aren’t any accidents, and if there are, she cleans them up.” The 27-year-old adds that the cats have really helped with rodents. “There are no rats or mice problems, thankfully.

“We’re all quite pet friendly around here, I have my pup, Iggy, that stays with me during the day, so it’s not really a problem for me,” Good adds as he finishes wiping down the bar just before opening for the day.

In contrast, the manager at The Melville Grill Lounge says that the thought of having 60 cats in an area right next door is very worrisome. “It is very bad to me. I know a lot of people support it and it is good to save the cats, but I worry about my business. There haven’t been any problems with the cats on my property, so I haven’t done anything.” he adds.

Melville has a small community feel of people helping the next person. Some of the residents and shop owners of Melville feel strongly that the work that Gail does is commendable.

Peter Harris, owner of Sunbury Place, a guest house on Sunbury Avenue along the outskirts of Melville, says that the cats are a prominent topic in the area.

“The cats are quite topical – people either like it or they don’t. To me I think it’s fine, [Gail has] always had a lot of cats and she clearly takes good care of all of them, so I don’t see a problem,” he says.

“After living in the area for 15 years, I’ve realised that it’s Melville, things are done differently around here which is what makes this place special,” Harris adds. The famous Seventh Strip has become quite pet-orientated, according to some shop owners on the Strip. 

Elmien le Grange, the owner of Our House, a furniture refurbishing store on 7th Street, says that the Melville community is quite pet conscious. 

“We often have people come and browse with their dogs mainly. There are a few regulars that come and get their coffee with their dogs. I am just meeting the pet community feel that Melville already has,” she adds.

It’s clear that as long as Gail Millard is around, Bounty Hunters will continue to be a home for stray and abandoned cats as well as a great place to find a bargain.

FEATURED IMAGE: Gail Millard, a cat lover and thrift shop owner. Photo: Elizabeth-Jane Ringrose.