Melville’s ‘crazy for cats’ woman sees no excess in charity

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.

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French style flourishes on the high street

Passing sewage pipes and vendors selling chicken feet on the busy sidewalks of Rockey Street, ‘Ace’ Nsiala walks by in his Versace suit and Givenchy shoes into the local Congolese pub at Kin-Malebo pub. The Congolese father and husband is a member of the La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen living in Yeoville who don’t allow circumstance to determine their fate.

Ace wears a silver watch and a look of nonchalance as he walks into Rue Du Faubourg, a boutique in Yeoville. He nearly bumps his head on an aerial that hangs loosely from the television set and throws it a look of disapproval.The store has a Parisian theme, with ornate gold mirrors and two armchairs fit for a king, but the bunny chow that sits on the counter reminds you that you’re in Yeoville.

Ace (pronounced A-say) plays with his silver-and-black ring embossed with the Dolce & Gabbana logo. Beneath the ring is a small tattoo that looks like it was done in someone’s backroom. His eyes wander the fashionable boutique and glance out at the busy street where grilled mealies and chicken feet are being sold.

“I’m wearing Zara pants and Versace jacket,” says Ace in English with undertones of a French accent. Ace is part of the Congolese fashion movement called La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes (The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) but more well known as La SapeThey are also known as dandies – men obsessed with personal appearance and flamboyant dress style, who wear exaggerated looks of careful indifference.

The movement was born from the two Congos, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the smaller Congo Republic. The two are also known as Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville respectively. Sapologie is the official title given to its members, who are called Sapeur.

The true religion of fashion

GIVENCHY FOR THE MEN: Member of La Sape, Basunga “Ace” Nsiala (30) wears a Givenchy cap and chains while waiting to meet other members at the local Congolese pub Kin-Malebo. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

To some people, the culture of La Sape is like a religion. It is like a prophet, a Sapeur a disciple. So a Sapeur is an apostle … A Sapeur is a student – a person who is entering into the kingdom,” says Robert Kalombo, a Congolese casting agent, who is familiar with the culture. He sees their relationship with clothing as a kind of marriage.“La Sape is a movement, but is a religion for young people. Young people base it on their out-set [appearance].”

Indeed they seem ever-present in the neighbourhood. Usually they wear normal street clothes: t-shirts and jeans, indistinguishable from the masses buying tomatoes and dried fish on the cracked pavements of Yeoville. Only a hint of flair emerges when these men pair their “layman” clothing with branded shoes or belts.

La Sape showcase their clothes in local pubs and restaurants. The Yeoville variety come from poor, working-class backgrounds but save their small salaries to buy expensive clothes and take part in fashion competitions.“It’s our culture,” says Lucien Baheta, sitting in the Congolese barbershop on Yeoville’s main thoroughfare, Rockey Street. While not one of La Sape himself, Baheta understands the culture and says he takes his influence from them. “When God made the world he gave the intelligence to the mlungu [white person] to sew the clothes, and he gave us the gift, us Congolese of Kinshasa, to wear those clothes.”

Ace is one of these working men, always looking to hustle a little more money to buy clothing. Both he and his cousin, also part of La Sape, frequent Rue Du Faubourg in their search for elegant clothing. Standing at the counter of the boutique, his cousin nudges him and asks about the interview: “Will they give you money?”

“Are you going to be paying me for doing this?” Ace asks and wears a look of disappointment when he hears the answer. Ace doesn’t go into much detail about how he earns his living, saying only that he works in Randburg “fixing white people’s aerials”. He is also coy about how he pays for his expensive clothes, simply saying that he gets them from his brother in Europe.

The “Ace” of all spades 

He moved from Kinshasa in 2008 and is one of many Congolese to come to South Africa, fleeing war or poverty, in search of a better life. Yeoville’s large Congolese community makes it easier to adopt cultural practices like La Sape, according to Kalombo.

Jean-Pierre Lukamba, vice-chairman of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), says the Congolese are one of the largest foreign communities in Yeoville and La Sape are a big part of that community. “In South Africa, the capital of the Congo is Yeoville, the capital of the Sapeur is also in Yeoville.”

Lukamba also compares La Sape to a religion – but one that costs a lot of money. “The problem is that sapologie is like a religion. They got also the followers, and they got the newcomers you are growing like that – you can become like a bishop [but] you can’t not have a car, nice house or nice wife.”

“When God made the world he gave the intelligence to the mlungu [white person] to sew the clothes, and he gave us the gift, us Congolese of Kinshasa, to wear those clothes.”

Though he has the clothes, Ace is still a long way from having a nice car or nice house. He lives in a block of flats a short walk from Rockey Street. Climbing the short flight of steps, he reaches deep into his pocket for a security card to swipe at the revolving gate and enters the building with cracked walls and a rusted stairwell.

The building complex is maze-like and, leading the way to his second-floor flat, Ace jokes: “I got lost a lot of times when I moved here”. He knocks at the door and waits a few minutes before a tall man wearing reading glasses and a wide smile opens the door and gestures for him to come in.

From the outside, the flat looks like a normal home, but the bedroom set up in the living room tells the story of a makeshift housing solution typical for those living in Yeoville. Ace shares the three-bedroom flat with three other families – all couples with children. He points out his room before leaving a bag of groceries in the shared kitchen.The flat has two windows and light streams in through baby-blue curtains held up with a clothes peg. Neatly arranged in the room are a bed, a fridge and a flat-screen television playing soap operas.Tidily spread out across the hardwood floors are a row of his shoes, about a dozen of them. These are just his best ones. Ace says he has more in the wardrobe. “Pull the white ones out, they’re pretty.”

The wardrobe is already open, though even if it were closed, his expensive clothing would be visible through the large cracks in the wood around the edges.Carefully laying out the clothes on his bed, Ace gives a detailed account of every item, saying the names of the designers, his eyes alight with excitement.“See, the design, it’s Gianni Vegagi,” he says, trying on the Versace blazer. Hanging on the walls are small pictures of Ace’s wife and daughter, with whom he shares the small room.

The most money Ace has won at a La Sape competition was R15,000 at a competition in Melrose Arch in 2010. “At first my woman was getting irritated by my obsession with clothing, saying, ‘You are a father now, how could you be doing these things?’ But I’m bringing the money home.” Ace points to his fridge which he bought with the money he won.“[La Sape ] started with musicians, but we realised that everyone can become part of it,” says Kalombo.

A poor man’s culture 

The first La Sape were relatively wealthy but the movement soon filtered down to working men, with the Congolese civil war tearing down class barriers. As a former colony of France, they were heavily influenced by French fashion. But ironically, Kalombo says, La Sape became a way for people to “reclaim their identities from their colonisers” by adapting the clothes to Congolese culture.

ROYAL GUARD OF SUITS: Basunga “Ace” Nsiala changes suits in the rented room that he shares with his wife and daughter. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

However, Kalombo says La Sape is not a natural fit for South Africa or for Yeoville. He says the lifestyle in Congo is more relaxed, whereas in South Africa, people must hustle to make a living. “The life standard in South Africa and the Congo is different. The cost of life is not the same, making their living is not the same.”

Run-down buildings, overcrowded flats and crime are facts of life in Yeoville. The neighbourhood has become the site of struggle for the thousands who call it home. Many are foreign nationals who entered the country illegally or just with refugee permits. As a result, Yeoville is considered a poor, migrant community.

The reality of Yeoville life, where the streets are pungent with the smell of smoked fish and sewage, is in sharp contrast to the aesthetic culture of the La Sape, who meet every Sunday at the Kin-Malebo, the local Congolese pub.

“We host [this] kind of event because, mainly us Congolese we like clothes, we like to look good, to look smart,” says Kin-Malebo manager Francis Lokake. “So back home there are such competitions and because our community is here, we just build up that idea of competing. The most smart person or the guy who gonna dress [in] expensive clothes wins.”

Meet Ace – a member of La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

Meet Ace – a member of La Sape – a league of extraordinary gentlemen in Yeoville, Johannesburg. By: Palesa Tshandu

A bright-green sign of an eagle marks this spot as a bit of Congo in the middle of Johannesburg. In the parking lot of the pub, an assembly of luxury cars faces the lapas, and braai smoke fills the air. The La Sape are here in force in their tailored suits, many of the men smoking cigars and raising beers with wrists decorated with expensive watches.

Those who know each other greet one another with loud roars, knocking heads from side-to-side – a traditional Congolese greeting. There is a clear divide between the La Sape “haves” and “have nots”. An elevated concrete deck overlooking the parking lot is occupied by the men with nicer suits who drove to the pub from other areas in luxury cars.

Across the parking lot, Congolese men dressed in t-shirts and jeans occupy the pool tables, placing bets as they play. They are easily distracted by the cars driving in, shooting them looks of admiration or envy. With an expression of deep respect, Ace arrives to first greet his fellow Sapeur sitting in the lapas smoking cigars. But he soon finds there’s no space for him and retreats across the parking lot to the pool table where he finds many friends.

On competition days, the parking lot becomes a stage where Sapeur showcase their clothing. Lokake says the competition days are important because that is when the large Congolese community migrates to the pub to see the Sapeur in their best clothes.“We know that we dress nicer than all other countries,” says Lokake, going on to demonstrate what a self-respecting Sapeur should wear.

“You have to marry the colours first,” he says. Winning contestants should “kill” their contenders’ outfits by wearing better colours. “You can have even very expensive clothes but I can also wear the clothes for R10 in town but if I wear them … everyone must ask: ‘Where did you get these clothes?’”

Poverty and war have defined the Congo over the past 20 years and these have often created the image people have of the region. But the culture of La Sape is a way for some Congolese men to defy their harsh circumstances with clothes and fashion. But even fashion has its limits. Sitting by the pool tables, Ace signals for Lokake to come to him but is ignored. Finally, Ace walks across the dirty parking lot in his Versace suit and Givenchy sneakers and pleads for a free drink.

“One beer please man, just one beer.”

FEATURED IMAGE: ROYAL GUARD OF SUITS: Basunga “Ace” Nsiala changes suits in the rented room that he shares with his wife and daughter. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

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