Rare and Racy was a shop in the Devonshire Green area of Sheffield. It dealt in second-hand books, music, and art prints. When Sheffield City Council gave the go ahead for developers to “rejuvenate” the area, the building which housed Rare and Racy, and other independent businesses such as Syd and Mallory’s Emporium, was to be demolished. Now, as the redevelopment plans edge closer to realisation, that great Victorian red brick terrace nears the point beyond which it will be transformed into a little golgotha of red dust and glass fragments to be swept away like so much Saturday night detritus, the echoes of history and of lived human experience that have collected there will be lost forever to time’s insatiable saprophagy.
The last time I entered the shop, in late June of 2017, it had for days been in the process of trying to eviscerate itself, and I recall this was supposed to be its penultimate day of opening. Here was a closing sale in which all items but the bricks and roof shingles themselves were going for pennies apiece. Furniture—from bookshelves to record racks, tables, chairs, display cases, boxes and chests—was priced more often in the tens of pounds, but left the shop no less quickly than what remained of the once overwhelming book collection that I used to pore over in search of classics and oddities on my every visit. Allen Capes, who had been running the shop since its opening in 1969, was behind the till as usual, receiving best wishes from long time customers and many people who had probably never even set foot in there before. It seems that nothing is better for drumming up new business than a two-pronged assault of death and discounts.
I told Allen, when I had picked out a couple of lucky finds, that I would miss the place, before adding that he was probably sick of hearing that by now. He told me, with a resigned nod of the head and a wry smile, that he had been hearing the exact words non-stop the past few days. I took my items, a sale amounting because of the markdown to just one pound, and wished him the best of luck for the future as I stepped out. When the official closing date came and went, purpose unfulfilled, it was clear that he would be hearing them for at least a few more days. Determined as he was to clear the place of every saleable scrap, the shop remained open for something like two weeks after I had made my last ever exit from its eccentric urban cave atmosphere.
On the website, which at the time of writing remains up, there is a gallery of pictures showing the shop interior in full bloom (see also: Postcard Cafe’s series on Rare & Racy). It gives you an idea of what it was like, but even the most extensive array of documentary material could not communicate the real experience of being there.
In its prime, opening the door to Rare and Racy was like stepping into a nexus out of time. Out of print books and records lined the walls on shelves and dominated the floors of its rooms in stalls, stacks, boxes, and stacks of boxes. The air was always thick with jazz, electronica, psychedelic jam bands of the ’60s and ’70s, the folk musics of distant lands, the Kronos Quartet playing an homage to music of the East by American minimalism’s grand old man Terry Riley. Burning incense competed with the aroma of old books, that enticing scent born of the printed word living parasitic on the ghosts of pulped trees. Can we trace a line from a page of Dickens to a tree, from its roots to the dead in the soil from which it grew? In such a place of time and timelessness, where the lifeblood of history was so abundant, those connections were felt undeniably even if you couldn’t put a name to what lay at the centre of them all.
There are places in this world that provide cultures and their creations with refuge, no matter how fleeting, from time. One that I and so many people in Sheffield knew is now closed forever, its diasporans are scattered about the city and further afield, on their way to who knows where. Eventually, if they survive, as I can only hope they will, the places they came from and visited on their way to wherever they then find themselves will be forgotten. When we lose such places we lose a meeting point of things, of ideas and their vessels, of moments crystallised, of peoples and places recorded, and of the perspectives of which they all were born, from which they all were seen. And when the last of them falls to the love of the new we will begin finally to lose ourselves. Perhaps one day, when we have run out of guns and rockets to fire at each other, we will look to those old word piles for ammunition, and when we have run out of books to throw, we will take up the bones of the dead and begin again as naked apes.