By Ruvesen Naidoo
With a heavy heart, the owners of the 124-year-old Grahamstown Laundry and Dry Cleaners in High Street are closing down because of their poor state of health, and the impact of load shedding and water cuts.
Navin Narshai, one of the owners of Grahamstown Laundry and Dry Cleaners, manages the business alongside his wife, Maya Narshai, and younger brother Ashwin Narshai. He told Grocott’s Mail that the laundry was an enduring link between generations, having been handed down through four generations.
Describing the laundry’s establishment in Makhanda, Narshai recalls stories that were shared by his grandparents and says “My great grandfather, Kallan Govind Narshai, along with his big brother, originally arrived in Grahamstown between 1892-1893. My great-grandfather’s eldest brother was a businessman and started off as a money lender. The army barracks that were located in town at the time made him realise the need for laundry services as there weren’t many cleaning services back then”.
Between 1894 and 1895, Kallan Govind Narshai then started providing laundry services from his home in Kowie Street because the property had a water well. Four years later, both brothers established Grahamstown Laundry and Dry Cleaners at its current location at 7 High St. It became what Narshai now affectionately calls a ‘family-owned business’.
Narshai says “When my great grandfather’s eldest brother left to start a new business called ‘Charlie John Laundry’ in 1912, my great grandfather went to India in the late 1920s to bring my grandfather, Govind Narshai, back to help run Grahamstown Laundry and Dry Cleaners with him. Govind Narshai then went back to India in the 1930s and after my father, Kanchan Narshai, was born in 1933, Govind brought him back to South Africa along with my grandmother and two aunties”.
Narshai told Grocott’s Mail that he remembers stories told of the impact of colonisation and Apartheid on his family’s business. By 1949, just after Apartheid began in 1948, his great-grandfather, and great-grandfather’s eldest brother and wife had gone back to India to live. Their reason for leaving South Africa was that ‘the writing was on the wall’ referring to the increase in segregation policies in the 1950s. Narshai’s grandfather and wife remained behind to manage the business until his grandfather’s death on 9 September 1970, when the business was then taken over by Kanchan Narshai.
Narshai mentions that the business would have operated better if it was on a single floor, as it would have reduced the time spent moving between the upstairs and downstairs areas. However, the Group Areas Act of 1950 did not allow the family to move to a new premises.
Being a fourth-generation owner of the business, South African-born Navin Narshai shares an early memory of starting work at the laundry service when he was 17 years old, 53 years ago in 1971.
“It was very overwhelming, I left school at the end of Standard Eight in 1970 and started working part-time at the laundry in 1971 meaning I did not finish school. I studied correspondence for two years, until my Mum died in 1973, and my Dad needed me to join the laundry business full-time. He later died on 17 November 1997”, says Navin Narshai.
Narshai highlights that “In the beginning, the first generation of owners started off at the business by doing the washing by hand and using a donkey and cart to fetch laundry loads. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, they started buying equipment such as washing machines that were powered by coal. When my late Dad took over, we were nearly fully mechanised in the late 1950s with washers, dryers, iron, and pressers”.
Narshai explains that they have ‘mechanised’ all equipment over time to adjust to changes in technology and make the business more viable. “We had to move with the times otherwise you get left behind, as our market is very competitive,” says Narshai. “You have to mechanise in such a way that you can accommodate your clients, and give them the necessary service and quality that they require”.
Unfortunately, for the same reasons that many other Makhanda businesses have for closing their doors, frequent load shedding and the constant Makhanda water outages proved too much for the laundry to handle. Narshai sadly mentions that this has led to substantial financial stress as the cost of running a generator would have significantly increased the business’s operating expenses and felt that passing those costs to customers would be unfair.
Narshai says “As much as my family and employees are saddened by the news of our laundry service closing down, one has to look at one’s health and consider the circumstances around why we have to close”.
One of the unique aspects of Grahamstown Laundry and Dry Cleaners was its extensive customer base, which included hotels, bed and breakfast establishments, game lodges, and Rhodes University, which has been its longest-running customer for 40 years.
Customer John Gilam says “A bit of history is being lost with the closure of the business. We wish them well in their retirement. A tragic loss from a business perspective, because they contribute to the local economy and provide a service to the schools, universities, and businesses in Makhanda.”
Gilam added that every time he had used the laundry their work had been impeccable, and it was a pity that they were closing down.
However, the legacy of Grahamstown Laundry and Dry Cleaners will not vanish completely. The business will merge with an existing laundry service, Harry’s Laundry and Dry Cleaners, located at 6 Queen Street. Narshai says this will provide “continuity” and a seamless transition for loyal customers. Ashwin Narshai and other employees of the Grahamstown Laundry and Dry Cleaners will also move to Harry’s Laundry, ensuring a continuation of employment and expertise.