Maverick Life

STORIES FROM THE PLATTELAND

Karoo discoveries – A little shop of wonders in downtown Cradock

Karoo discoveries – A little shop of wonders in downtown Cradock
A furious darts competition – or a domestic tiff between two star-crossed trophies in the More4Less shop window? Image: Chris Marais

Cradock’s More4Less is an oddities mall where pickers roam with beady eyes and old stuff is fixed as good as new.

Stand in the forecourt of the More4Less emporium of second-hand goods in downtown Cradock, edit out all the signage, add in a row of gleaming new black Model Ts, maybe some classic petrol bowsers, and suddenly you’re back in the bygones when this massive building housed a Ford dealership and a filling station. Linger outside for a minute and listen to the happy shrieks of the tots coming from the Krabbel & Klouter crèche just below the Moederkerk hall. See the ox wagon on the pavement, gently rotting into time and space.

Now stroll into the shop, with your “picker’s goggles” firmly in place.

Mario Lanza sings the classics

Here’s Mario Lanza on the Gramophone, just dying to sing When You’re in Love, a Spode bust of the cigar-chomping Winston Churchill complete with bulldog face, a ship’s barometer marked Capetown Castle, an Ellam’s Self-Feeding Rotary Duplicator, some Codd-neck bottles, an Emidicta Dictation Machine, shiny platteland town spoons, a boxful of tot glasses which can double up as egg cups, a Queen Anne stove, an ancient Aga donkey boiler in perfect nick, and so much more.

Who knew?

Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper once said of Mario Lanza:

“His smile, as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak.”  

The Gramophone that promises to deliver the tenor’s dynamic tones bears the His Master’s Voice maker’s mark on the flip-lid. Did you know the dog sitting at the ancient speaker was Nipper the terrier from Bristol, UK?

Nipper, something of a sneak, earned his name by biting visitors on the back of their ankles. He belonged to an unfortunate man called Mark Barraud, who died young and penniless. After the funeral, the dog was dispatched for a while to his brother Francis in Liverpool. In the 1890s, it was the fashion to record one’s voice on a Phonograph and occasionally play it back in polite company. It seems the late Mark Barraud’s voice was captured in such a way. One night, Barraud found Nipper sitting attentively at the speaker, hanging onto his dead master’s every word.

The image was etched for life in Francis Barraud’s mind, so he painted a portrait of the scene and gave it the snazzy title of “Dog Looking At and Listening to a Phonograph”. 

It caught the marketing eye of The Gramophone Company, who immediately bought the rights and set Francis Barraud to work for the rest of his days – on 24 versions of little Nipper at the record player. Of course, he had to paint the dog with a proper Phonograph and not the skoro-skoro previously portrayed.

The More4Less team, with owner Marlene van Nuwenhuys at centre. Image: Chris Marais

The More4Less team, with owner Marlene van Nuwenhuys at centre. Image: Chris Marais

Marlene van Nuwenhuys – Queen of the Pickers. Image: Chris Marais

Marlene van Nuwenhuys – Queen of the Pickers. Image: Chris Marais

 His Master’s Voice, a Victrola and the sweet sounds of Mario Lanza. Image: Chris Marais

His Master’s Voice, a Victrola and the sweet sounds of Mario Lanza. Image: Chris Marais

Day of the Dead salt and pepper shaker. Image: Chris Marais

Day of the Dead salt and pepper shaker. Image: Chris Marais

Even Winston Churchill has a place at More4Less. Image: Chris Marais

Even Winston Churchill has a place at More4Less. Image: Chris Marais

 The disapproving duchess looking askance at Betty Boop relaxing in her easy chair. Image: Chris Marais

The disapproving duchess looking askance at Betty Boop relaxing in her easy chair. Image: Chris Marais

Also at More4Less is a row of immaculate meat grinders, with a Universal leading the pack. The Universal, first made in 1897 by the Landers, Frary & Clark Company of Massachusetts, US, is a true kanniedood kitchen appliance, running on elbow grease and fresh meat only, although my wife says it can do hard nuts as well. 

Across from Grinder Alley is the shop’s porcelain section, where Sir Winston Churchill holds sway over 18th-century courtiers, a glowering duchess, an eerie salt and pepper set with nodding death skulls, Aladdin’s toe-curl slippers (can his magical lamp be far away?), a newly married couple who really should watch their carb intake, a young shepherd confiding a random thought to his dog and a French clown in lime-green.

One of the most valuable ceramics is brought out for an airing. She’s a young Betty Boop De Luxe reclining in her bikini on an easy chair, one shapely high-heeled leg forever swinging up and down, like a naughty businessman’s toy. 

Aladdin’s Lamp

I have my eye on a tiny ceramic watering can bearing the old Cradock coat of arms. Fully agricultural, flanked by ostrich feathers and topped with a cornucopia, the symbols include an orange tree, a beehive, a wheat sheaf and what looks like a hanging jakkals but is, I am told, the fleece of a sheep.

In the display window of More4Less is a dazzling glassware arrangement and a large cluster of trophies won by achievers over the decades. There’s a runner here, a shot-putter there, an eager-looking accountant and a male darts player forever aiming at his female counterpart, who in turn is pointing her missile at him. They must have had an argument after hours, when the lights were switched off and the place was locked up for the night.

A book we all should own – and memorise. Image: Chris Marais

A book we all should own – and memorise. Image: Chris Marais

Meat grinders (of the non-military type) are a big item in the shop. Image: Chris Marais

Meat grinders (of the non-military type) are a big item in the shop. Image: Chris Marais

Could this be Aladdin’s Lamp on display in the window of More4Less? Image: Chris Marais

Could this be Aladdin’s Lamp on display in the window of More4Less? Image: Chris Marais

A ship’s barometer marked Capetown Castle for sale at More4Less. Image: Chris Marais

A ship’s barometer marked Capetown Castle for sale at More4Less. Image: Chris Marais

In the midst of the forgotten trophies is what looks like, what really could be, Aladdin’s Lamp. I’m not a superstitious man, but I can’t help giving it a hopeful rub in passing. 

And who should appear right then but young Jackie Nuwenhuys, who wants to show me a British soldier’s sword. Nearly as good as the Genie, I reckon. She brings out a rusty old weapon bearing the Wilkinson mark near the hilt.

“We don’t have the history of this sword,” she says. “It came in a family lot.”

Her husband Jacques strolls over.

“It was from a local,” he says. “And it dates back to the Boer War. There was a lot of action around Cradock back then. See the rust? It must have lain out in the veld near the body of its owner for years before someone found it.”

Another More4Lesser, Ockert Bekker, introduces me to a beautiful nautical piece.

 Jacques van Nuwenhuys in his workshop: one day it’s this, tomorrow it’s that. Image: Chris Marais

Jacques van Nuwenhuys in his workshop: one day it’s this, tomorrow it’s that. Image: Chris Marais

Jackie van Nuwenhuys, who looks after the digital sales side of the business. Image: Chris Marais

Jackie van Nuwenhuys, who looks after the digital sales side of the business. Image: Chris Marais

Capetown Castle

Seemingly in perfect condition, maybe even some kind of a replica, this is a barometer that claims to be from the Capetown Castle, one of the most famous ships to bear a South African city name.

The British passenger liner first did a couple of years’ duty on the Union-Castle mail service from Southampton to South Africa and was seconded to the war effort, converted into a troop ship, sailed nearly 500,000 miles in the service of her country and carried more than 160,000 soldiers.

In 1942, The Capetown Castle picked up a number of rather anxious German prisoners-of-war from Suez. They knew their U-boat packs would be lying in wait en route to South Africa and did not hold out much hope for the ship’s survival.

The vessel led the hunting submarines in a merry chase across the South Atlantic Ocean to the Magellan Straits and then up into the Pacific, from where she headed to New York and, eventually, back to Great Britain with her load of jittery Germans.  

In 1943, she was used in Operation Bolero as part of the preparations for the D-Day to come. In 1947, the Capetown Castle was refitted for civilian use and out came the deck games, the cabin service, the evening suits and the little cocktails with parasols a-float.

Life for the Capetown Castle, known as a “very happy ship for crew and passengers alike”, went along without incident until October 17, 1960 when something exploded in the engine room as she was docking at Las Palmas. Seven crewmen lost their lives.

In later years, her routes were overtaken by faster vessels and eventually she was retired and sold for scrap in 1967. Perhaps that’s when somebody with an eye for these things found the barometer and snagged it?

Shear magic

Closer to home and to our hearts is the selection of shearing blades lying nearby in an old office in-box. Each one has its own peculiar set of blade clamps, fashioned from bits of skin or rubber. Karoo shearers worked with these tools, liberating many thousands of fleeces from wide-eyed livestock. I can smell the lanolin and the sweat, I can feel the deep silence of a dozen toiling men in the shed, guys who are world-class at what they do. The bleats outside in the holding pen, the farmer patrolling the classing table where the fleeces are thrown open and inspected – it’s an ancient form of farm-craft going back more than 10,000 years.

Electric hand-pieces are often used these days, but an experienced blade-shearer still gives you the best clip. Ask the middle-aged Bongani Joel of Sterkspruit, who with all his World Champ awards is the Gary Player of the shearing shed.

In the midst of all these incredible back-stories it is easy to neglect the greatest legend of More4Less, that of the owner Marlene van Nuwenhuys. They say she once managed to convince a poltergeist to leave her home, but that’s not really why she’s locally famous.

Queen of the Karoo Pickers, van Nuwenhuys is happiest while rootling around the attics and cellars of old buildings, braving snakes, cobwebs and spiders in her hunt for pre-owned, pre-loved treasure.

“This shop is an adventure!” she will tell you. Then she’ll take you by the hand and lead you to her latest find. 

Van Nuwenhuys sources a lot of her stock from farmsteads when elderly customers want to downsize and resettle in smaller dwellings. “Leaving the farm and selling off many possessions is heart-breaking for them at first,” she says. However, studies have shown that the initial sorrow of shedding material goods is brief, often followed by a feeling of immense relief.

When Marlene van Nuwenhuys takes on a “family lot”, it’s often like a massive mystery box. I ask her about the ghost story:

“Shortly after we moved into our home across the street (from More4Less) we began hearing things in the night. Pictures fell off the walls, glasses just dropped from tables. My husband Vlooi really didn’t like the place at first.”

Classic, ageless sheep shears as still used on many Karoo farms – especially during loadshedding. Image: Chris Marais

Classic, ageless sheep shears as still used on many Karoo farms – especially during loadshedding. Image: Chris Marais

A soldier’s sabre, found in the veld on a Cradock farm. Image: Chris Marais

A soldier’s sabre, found in the veld on a Cradock farm. Image: Chris Marais

Part of the cavernous interior of More4Less in Cradock. Image: Chris Marais

Part of the cavernous interior of More4Less in Cradock. Image: Chris Marais

One night Marlene van Nuwenhuys heard someone moving around and thought at first it was Vlooi returning late from a late night kuier. She got up to have a look and found the family Jack Russell in the kitchen, back-hairs erect, watching a ghost.

“Now look,” she addressed the spectre. “I just want to tell you that we’re living here now, OK? I’m afraid you’ll have to go. But by all means, let me know if there’s a problem and I’ll do my best to help out.”

Mongo Mongo

And just like that, the ghost left the kitchen for good. Clearly, Marlene van Nuwenhuys is not easily haunted.

Her son Jacques is a big, handy guy and most broken incomings end up in his workshop. He’s been a forester, a computer repairman and a mobile telephone specialist. He says one of his best gigs ever was with Orange Mobile in Britain, checking for “black spots” all over the country.

“I was paid to drive on every single major and many minor roads in the UK in a minivan with an automatically calling cellphone set-up in the back,” he says. “I literally travelled from John o’ Groats to Land’s End. Jacky had a good position with the British side of Airbus, but my time at Orange was going to be cut short because they were retrenching.”

Then Marlene van Nuwenhuys called and said please come home, the business is getting too big. So they returned, Jacky became adept at sourcing values and selling on the internet and Jacques carried on the family tradition of Mongo.

What is this Mongo, you might ask? Apart from being the name of the official Mongolian currency (100 Mongos = 1 Tugrik), it’s also the New York slang for items picked and reused from trash.

Jackie, who runs their Books4Less account online (Bid or Buy, now Bobshop), makes sure that treasures don’t slip through their fingers. She’s also selling that sabre mentioned earlier, the one found in the veld.

The repairs division of More4Less is spread out among a number of small workshops and the large upholsterers across the road, underneath Marlene van Nuwenhuys’s home. There you’ll find Danny Senekal and David Watling, making tarpaulins and covers for veteran couches.

“The old ones are the sturdy ones,” they say. As I leave this vast enterprise, I know that, like many other plattelanders, More4Less will always be my first stop on any future retail adventure. 

I also know that one day most of our stuff will end up on display here, waiting for new homes. DM

This is an extract from Karoo Roads I – Tales from South Africa’s Heartland, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. 

For an insider’s view on life in the Dry Country, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black and white) for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]

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