A real-time general dealer

Brothers Yagyah and Elyaas Karbelkar in one of the plumbing aisles at the Blou Winkel.

It’s a landmark on Old Paarl Road. Painted in a distinctive royal blue, with a large parking lot skirting the premises, people come from far and wide to seek motor spares, plumbing items, hardware goods, gas supplies, bicycle spares and more.

And like many stores that started off as a general dealer, the Blou Winkel has a colourful history.

Abdurahman Karbelkar and his family were some of the last residents to leave District Six in apartheid’s forced removals which started in 1966. They relocated from Asperling Street opposite the Moravian Church to Paarl where they set up a shop in 1973, similar to what they had had in District Six.

Mr Karbelkar left his native India, where he had lived in the southern town of Rajwadi, to seek a better life in South Africa in the earlier part of the 20th century.

In 1979, the family moved again, this time to Kraaifontein, where a small blue house on Old Paarl Road provided the location of what is today the bustling store, which was rebuilt in 2001.

In the old days, as paintings and photographs attest, it was a typical general dealer store with a shop on the left and the house where the family lived on the right-hand side facing the road, which remains a major thoroughfare interlinking the northern suburbs and leading to the winelands.

Today the shop takes up a whole block, and as we sit in the office at the back, packed with neatly-labelled administrative files and ledgers, sons Yagyah, 42, and Elyaas Karbelkar, 38, attribute much of its expansion to the fact that their late father “never liked to say no to a client”.

“As a general dealer, people would come in asking for anything from bicycle tubes to plumbing parts,” says Yagyah.

And so grew the list of dozens and dozens of stocked items, to thousands upon thousands, which today fill the capacious shelves of 12 long aisles as Yagyah and Elyaas keep up the tradition of “never letting a customer down”.

Elyaas adds, “We haven’t really sat down and counted everything since our last stocktaking a year ago and that took a week when all 20 of our workers and extra staff undertook an intensive stock take”.

Still trading in the same way as general dealers did in the old days, customers stand in front of a long counter and put in their requests. Shop assistants mark down their requests and source the items from the dedicated aisles and then ring up the sales which are double checked at the exit.

“We both love cars and so became specialists in stocking car parts,” says Elyaas.

In the store, you’ll find anything from window winders for old Toyota Corolla models dating back to the 1980s and 1990s, to manifold gaskets, to shock absorbers, ball joints, car lights and brake pads to items associated with “tune ups”.

The store is open seven days a week, for 12 hours a day except for Sundays, when it closes at 1pm, and Yagyah says they always try to help customers in getting hard-to-find spares. “It can be very daunting – sometimes a challenge – to find the part, but it’s very gratifying to be able to solve people’s problems.”

While the immediate community makes up a large part of those filling the store, the brothers say their client base spreads from Gordon’s Bay to Melkbosstrand to Paarl to Strand.

With the mind-boggling array of items in stock, which also includes a small selection of fresh produce and refreshments and a few takeaways, the pair say they are streamlining their listings of goods and soon it will all become computerised.

“While the recipe to our success has been that we haven’t separated any of the entities, so that we appeal to a wide client base, we are busy with upgrades to become more efficient so that it becomes a computer-oriented point of sale.”

As I take my leave, the brothers get philosophical as they talk about their “calling”.

The say they both studied elsewhere but growing up in the shop, “our minds were always in the business”, as Elyaas recalls.

“We are both passionate about this place,” he says, to which Yagyah adds, “You need to know what you want from life.You may as well be a fantastic retailer than be something half-baked.

“Having the connection to people and being able to please them is fantastic”.