Rare and Racy is a treasure of a shop that was my favourite during my eight years in Sheffield. It’s crammed full of books and old treasures, and with the shops that surround it provides the best unique shopping area in Sheffield. An application has been made to knock them all down and replace them with an apartment block – which would be a real shame! This is a feature I wrote about it as a part of my journalism masters – please read and vote!
The music is tense – atonal, staccato. In film terms, a significant encounter is about to take place. A tall stranger in a trench coat with a revolver. The smell of smoke – but no. It isn’t smoke but incense, burning from the almost hidden counter of the bookshop. Searching for books in Rare and Racy on Division Street is a significant event, apparently.
Searching is the right word. The shop is crammed full, mostly with books. Though there is some attempt at organization by genre and age, it doesn’t always work – next to a sixth edition Carry On, Jeeves is a row of Japanese manga. Any remaining wall space is covered in pictures, some with browning fountain-pen written labels, some printed.
After exploring the downstairs – two rooms overshadowed with books top to bottom, I decide to brave (the music is particularly foreboding at this moment) the narrow stairs. Old newspaper front pages in plastic wallets, hand priced, lie up the sides, a piece of dark furniture not originally intended for books is on the landing.
Upstairs are more books – art history, histories of Sheffield, more newspapers, pictures, everywhere. In the small children’s section lots of Enid Blyton, an almost complete set of Harry Potter. And, though the music doesn’t play here, there is a strange noise, a banging. I peer through a gap in the bookshelves into an empty space – there is a room beyond that looks empty, and someone there…
There is a noise behind me and I look back, past the poky stairs labelled private by a cardboard box, into the other room, where a small man is opening his post on top of the art collection. He smiles. “Getting your bearings?” He turns out to be Jo Mhlongo, one of the partners of the business.
The shop attracts all sorts of customers. On my way down the stairs a man with a tweed coat and flat cap is crouches on the landing leafing through a book, and as I get to the bottom of the stairs a group of students with carefully styled hair go into the record section.
Among the biographies I talk to a Paul Robinson, who buys and sells books in Hampshire, and has made a detour to Rare and Racy. He describes it as clearly-labelled, which doesn’t bode well for the navigation of his own bookshop, and he likes the atmosphere.
He says that bookshops everywhere are suffering from the internet – not most from Amazon, but a global bookselling site called http://www.ABEbooks.com, where people buy and sell online, and there are over four million books on offer. He pulls out an old, dusty book with a leather binding – and a pencilled ABE reference number. The internet is invading, even here, where there is no computer to be seen.
He said: “All real bookshops are dying – not just the second hand ones.”
I approach the counter – I’ve picked some books. The incense has gone, but through the small opening is a man, white haired, plainly dressed, unprepossessing. Behind him is a bureau fill of drawers, full of tiny yellowing index cards, covered with labels.
This is Allen Capes, who owns the business in partnership with the small man opening post. They took over the business ten years ago from John Capes, Allen’s brother, who started it in 1969 because he liked books and music and didn’t like his job in advertising. Allen is quiet and doesn’t really seem to want to talk that much about the business – but he does turn the music down.
“If people want something now they just go online. But it’s nicer to look through books, rather than just have a list. And you might end up with something that you weren’t looking for.”
“Rare and Racy has turned into a sort of Sheffield institution, but it just happened. We’ve got no plans for the future, we go from lease to lease – the next one is in three years time, and I don’t know if we’ll want to carry on,” he said.
He didn’t really plan to run the bookshop, but then he didn’t really plan anything: “I didn’t expect to be alive. Not after drink, drugs – being young.”
He gets most excited telling me about the artwork on the outside of the shop, and takes me out the back door to see massive graffiti style art by Sheffield artist Phlegm, whose work is for sale inside too. Monsters and animals and trippy patterns stretch up to the roof from the yard which is full of rubbish and backs onto a street that he tells me is usually full of drunks and drug addicts.
The front of the shop also boasts a local artist’s work. Jonathon Wilkinson designed the pale blue front that along with the neon ‘BOOKS BOUGHT’ sign and the shelf of 20p books tries to lure in customers – something that’s increasingly difficult, Allen says.
Jo Mhlongo, too, thinks there’s something about a bookshop that you can’t replicate online. The shop’s worst financial point was 2006, and Jo points out that the internet had been around for ages by then.
It was then that the press started to take an interest in the shop, so much so that Jo is worried that people will get “Rare and Racy fatigue.” After all the press attention, though, their business picked up, amazingly so, Jo says.
Despite this success he too is vague about what will happen to the shop. “We just go from day to day. We don’t think about the future.”
I wonder, though, if they do. Self-effacing as they are, clueless as the image they present, the bookshop has a very definite charm that cannot be accidental – and they have got their books registered on ABEbooks.com.
Perhaps the business naivety is another part of the act – along with the dusty shelves and old postcards, an enticing invitation to the past.