It’s been suggested that we are living in the age of instant gratification. Through our religious use of smartphones, social media and the Internet, information is now so readily available to us that it seems we’ve lost the virtue of patience and the pleasure of taking our time to seek out new forms of knowledge and entertainment. In addition to this, the widespread culture of modern consumerism and the mass production of goods have created a vast gulf between those who buy and those who sell, leading to a sense of alienation and impersonal robotic formality that characterises relationships between trader and customer. With the rise of online shopping this detachment has been further intensified, so it’s refreshing to find places that seem removed from this, while also restoring a bit of basic human personality to our daily routines – one such establishment being Rare & Racy, the eccentric book, art, and music store nestled away on Devonshire Street.
Rare & Racy opened its doors in 1969 with the aim of providing an alternative selection of literature, music and art not found in some of the more mainstream outlets in Sheffield. The shop lives up to this ethos, and its name; perusing the shelves I found an eclectic assortment of material ranging from occult fiction to free form jazz. The shop is a work of art in itself – the walls are adorned with quirky magazine clippings, anatomical drawings, and poetry, giving the store a homely, comfortable character too often neglected in many outlets.
As such, being in Rare & Racy almost feels as if you’re browsing the bookshelves and music collection in the home of a well-cultured friend. On last entering the shop, the smell of burning incense and the sounds of beatless ambient guitar music were the first things I noticed and within the space of five minutes these sounds were first substituted for bebop, then finally settling on a sultry female blues singer, aptly reflecting the varied and leftfield nature of the store. This is exactly what gives Rare & Racy its magnetic charm, luring customers in off the street with its aesthetically pleasing window displays and curious sounding background music.
Once you’re comfortably inside, the book and music collection offers a variety of material catering for many tastes and preferences, ranging from obscure and esoteric works to some more popular and accessible. Many previously owned and out of print works fill the crowded shelves over two floors, from graphic novels to cookery books, political literature to decade-old issues of Q magazine. The vinyl and CD collection also contains enough variation and originality to teach even the most veteran of musos a thing or two about music, old and new.
Whilst browsing, one thing that reappears is the emphasis on Sheffield-based art and culture. On the walls surrounding the narrow staircase, watercolour paintings by artists born or based in Sheffield over the last century are hung along with small paragraphs of information profiling each artist’s life and work. Work by contemporary artists such as the Steel City’s graffiti top dog Phlegm and illustrator Tom J Newell are amongst a host of local talent being endorsed by the shop, while upstairs the extensive history collection contains a decently sized section focusing on the local history of Sheffield, Yorkshire, and Derbyshire.
After more than forty years, Rare & Racy is still attracting customers in off the busy streets of Sheffield due to the unique atmosphere it provides inside. While Amazon and eBay may have revolutionised the way we shop, and social media the way we access and share information, by eliminating the steps in between they’ve also removed the enjoyment of flicking through a dusty book or vinyl sleeve, the kinesthetic process of seeing, liking, and buying which is just as fulfilling as the end product. It’s the simple pleasures such as shops like Rare & Racy that provide this welcome break from the monotony and banality of modern life.
Words and images: Aidan Daly.