Louis Botha Avenue is a street in transition where small businesses that once thrived are battling to attract customers, but with the prospect of revival there lies hope for the future in a declining economy.

PERCHED on an oil-stained wooden table, a bicycle wheel spins and wheezes. Each spin reflects the light from a headlamp worn by a slender, spectacled man whose hands are blackened from the greasy wrench he wields to loosen and tighten wheel spokes.

 “There is no school that will teach you how to fix bikes or learn the industry. I had to learn from grassroots level,” says Vimal Daya, who runs Bhanis, a bicycle shop on Louis Botha Avenue in Orange Grove, Johannesburg.

“It’s been tough, as I had to learn things from scratch, but over the years I have managed to teach myself.”

 The dark room is filled with bicycle parts and wheels, making it a minefield for the clumsy. Daya runs Bhanis with his older sister, Jyoti “Judy” Daya. The shop, tucked away on Louis Botha, has been operating since 1982.  

“I’ve become good enough at repairing and fixing bicycles. I think I am more mechanically proficient than academically proficient,” says Daya. He laughs in the flickering half-light, the result of a power cut caused by yet another bout of load-shedding. But these are dark times for the once thriving business.

 “It has been terribly tough. We are basically just surviving,” says Daya, shrugging as he searches for a tool in the jumble of his shop.  

Vimal Daya, runs Bhanis Bicycle shop with his sister Jyoti ‘Judy’ Daya. The 45-year old began working at the shop in 1992. Photo; Lwazi Maseko

A once thriving street which has fallen prey to ‘lawlessness’ 

Daya has learned along the way on how to repair bicycles, “fixing bicycles isn’t just about changing tubes and tyres, a bicycle can have a unique problem, which keeps it interesting.” Photo: Lwazi Maseko

Louis Botha was once a bustling street, but it has been battered by a troubled South African economy with problems ranging from high unemployment to crime, poverty and increasing competition from Johannesburg’s many malls.

The origin of the street dates back to 1876, just after the discovery of gold in Johannesburg. It has since become a vital thoroughfare that runs for more than 9km from the edge of Hillbrow to the border of Sandton.

The stretch of Louis Botha in Orange Grove has fallen victim to urban decay, with many businesses now characterised by informal trading, shebeens, churches and cash-for-scrap shops that have car parts spilling onto the pavement.

There is some hope for Louis Botha, though, because of Johannesburg’s “Corridors of Freedom” project, which partly intends to revive its economy.  

“The ‘Corridors of Freedom’ are one of the ways in which the City will transform entrenched settlement patterns that have kept many marginalised communities at the outskirts of the City, away from economic opportunities and access to jobs and growth,” according to the South African Jewish Report.

The development plan can revive Louis Botha’s economy “if it is done right”, says Noel Hutton, the director of NPC, a non-profit corporation that works closely with the Louis Botha community.

“Louis Botha is a very narrow road … to get everything envisaged and planned is impossible,” says Hutton, adding: “There will be no place for pedestrians; there are so many issues to do with that particular corridor before you get outside of it.”

Roger Chadwick, NPC senior project manager, says “physical mobility in Louis Botha is nil. It is dangerous to walk in.”

Chadwick, who has lived in the area since 1995, says the lack of security has affected the economy.

“Louis Botha is a river of crime. You can’t divorce economics from the social fabric.  There are a lot of forces that are having a negative effect on business. Why would I want to trade on Louis Botha Avenue if there is no law, order and enforcement?”

City of Johannesburg PR councillor Strike Rambani agrees that the underlying problem in Louis Botha is “lawlessness”.

“If the social issues can be improved, then we can improve our economy,” says Rambani, who has lived on Louis Botha for 20 years.

“We are getting upgrades in Orange Grove, but it is going to be a long process,” says Chadwick.

The “Corridors of Freedom” will redevelop an “effective public transport system”, Rea Vaya, which will increase foot traffic as more people travel through Louis Botha and residential developments, “which will stimulate opportunities for small-scale operators.”

But for Vimal Daya the prospect of thriving in today’s economy is a distant dream.

“For the past three years the biggest challenge in the business has been surviving, because of this whole economic crisis our country is going through right now,” says the 45-year old bike enthusiast.

His rent is roughly R15 000 a month: “To meet the rental obligations has been a challenge,” he says, “especially in winter, as it is not a good period for the cycling business.

“Things get tight, you can’t meet some of your payment obligations and we’ve run into trouble, where suppliers have stopped supplying us because we have taken too long to pay them off.”

The business has not been making a profit for the past three years.

Daya employs one person, who helps to repair bicycles.

“It is not viable to employ people because business is so bad, it doesn’t pay me. Each month the expenses tend to increase and we need to have the money to meet those expenses,” says Daya, adding that “things like going on holiday and going to the movies, the extra things you deserve in life, we had to make major cutbacks on.”

But Bhanis is not alone in its struggle to survive and thrive as a small business.

The shop is stocked with new bicycles which can be mistaken for second-hand since the wrappings have peeled and punctured tyres sit in the shop, collecting dust.

“Customers won’t buy new bicycles, but rather fix their old ones, which is more affordable,” Daya says. If a customer wants a bicycle he will show an image of the one he wants and will order it. “My stock size has shrunk,” he says.

“A good bicycle in the 1990s would cost you R800,” says Daya. “Today the same quality bicycle will cost you R2 500, which is a huge jump. Back then things were cheaper and people could afford them,” he says with a fleeting smile.

 Marian Laserson, 83, community activist and architect who has lived in the area for most of her life,  remembers Orange Grove as a thriving, energetic neighbourhood.

“We had an excellent bus service so people could go do their shopping,” she says. “When crime started to escalate, people started using their cars more and wouldn’t come to Louis Botha because there is no parking. Louis Botha started to die.”

Marian Laserson, says the lack of security on Louis Botha and the many illegal businesses has had a negative impact on the economy. Photo: Lwazi Maseko

The ‘nineteen-ninetines’, when it went downhill 

Daya says during the 90s all four major banks were a quick walk away from his shop. When the banks and major stores such as Markham’s and Foschini closed down it had a negative impact on his business.

An old clothing store, which sells iconic brands such as Dickies and Umbro, two brands which were popular in the 90’s and are making a comeback. Photo: Lwazi Maseko

Chadwick also remembers the banks’ pull-out as a big blow to business on the street.

“When Standard Bank moved out we threw our toys out; then FNB followed. We said no, you are killing Louis Botha,” he says.

Despite the declining economy, Bhanis is still well supported by regular customers.

Ilan Guest, a coach at Mandeville Wheelchair Rugby Club, uses Bhanis for fixing punctures, fitting tyres, buying tubes and replacing bearings on wheelchairs.

The service is “good value for money”, says Guest. “He is very cheap; too cheap in my opinion.”

Even with no customers, Daya remains busy fixing bicycles, arranging stock and attending to finances and administration.

He is philosophical about his circumstances, believing it is better to face challenges in life than to abandon all hope and walk away from them.

The business is his only source of income, and walking away will escalate his “personal problems”.

Daya hopes his business will improve, and although he is sceptical, “we remain positive and try to survive”.

 The good old days

Next door to Bhanis Bicycle Shop is Yogi’s Den, an old-school clothing store stocked with classic brands such as Dickies, a vintage work-wear brand fashionable in the 90s, and Umbro, an 80s athletics brand which has since made a comeback.

The shop is dark, cramped and piled with pants, sports t-shirts and men’s formal shoes.

Sifting through the morning newspapers, Narendra Daya, balding but athletic-looking, wearing a Levi t-shirt, bracelet and a wooden beaded necklace, is taking a break from the day’s business.

He runs his fingers along each page of a newspaper, occasionally leaning forward to watch the passing foot traffic.

“When it’s dark nobody wants to come in, so all I do is sit and wait,” says Narendra.

The 60-year old is the owner of Yogi’s Den, which was founded by his older brother, Yogi, and has been running on Louis Botha Avenue since 1977 after moving from the centre of Johannesburg.

“If someone, could give me money I would sell this business and buy apartments because everybody needs housing these days, that’s where the business is,” says Narendra Daya, who has lost his passion for selling and running a store.  Photo: Lwazi Maseko

Yogi’s Den is overcrowded with unsold clothes.

“Business is not good and all we are trying to do is survive,” says Narendra. “When we first opened, the rent was R200; now it is R10 000. We manage to make the rent, but it is tough. Business was good in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but by mid-2000 it wasn’t so good.”

Narendra remembers the days when customers would stream into the store, especially on weekends. “We couldn’t just sit and talk like this,” he says. “People would be saying give me this, give me that!” He points to the rows of clothing covering the shop.

“I remember back in the day when Yogi’s Den was the place to go to get deals” says Noel Hutton, who was a regular customer in his university days.  “I still have some of the clothes I bought from there 120 years ago,” he says with a laugh.

When Hutton lived in Sandringham he would use the bus to go to Louis Botha.

“It was vibrant, there was a lot going on, it was a hangout place. Saturday nights, that’s where you would start your jols.”

Narendra Daya, owner of Yogi’s Den, an old school clothing store which has been operating on Louis Botha in Orange Grove since 1977. Yogi’s Den, which was a thriving store, but has been struggling due to the declining economy, “we are just surviving,” says Daya, who sifts through the morning newspapers waiting for customers.

Revival in a declining economy

Down the street from Bhanis and Yogi’s is a shop with a pink, black and blue store front and a cherry logo.

Inside there is an overpowering smell that brings candy to mind. Welcome to Taboo, a shop that sells sex toys and adult DVDs. Behind the counter is an array of pills, herbal plants and “puffs” – herbs crushed and rolled into joints.

The owner of the shop, a cordial man wearing glasses and a Superdry t-shirt, introduces himself as Mark. He asks that his surname not be used, as some members of his family do not approve of the nature of his business.

“I would not be able to survive solely on the sex stuff,” says Mark, who once worked in the corporate world and “will never work for anybody again”.

Taboo sells “flavoured herbal mixtures” that do not contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, and are therefore legal according to current South African law.

The “puffs”, as Mark explains, come in various flavours such as coconut, cherry and mint. They cost R55 each and the rolled herbal mixture is R20.

Taboo has been operating on Louis Botha since 2012. Mark says the business is doing relatively well, thanks mostly to the pills, puffs and herbal mixtures.

He looks up to greet a customer. The man, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, asks for a cherry-flavoured puff. He is disappointed to learn the flavour is out of stock.

“I brushed my teeth this morning only to get here and find the cherry is not available,” he laughs.

Mark says that being friendly and welcoming is part of his business philosophy. He has found a niche in the market and has made the most of it.

Outside Bhanis, a man walks in with a blue and green child’s bicycle. He leaves it on the floor for repairs and rushes out to his parked car. Daya thanks him and waves him goodbye. As long as there are customers on Louis Botha, as long as there are people to serve them, the street and its businesses will survive.

FEATURED IMAGE: Vimal Daya, runs Bhanis Bicycle shop with his sister Jyoti ‘Judy’ Daya. The 45-year old began working at the shop in 1992. Photo; Lwazi Maseko