Interview with Richard Blackledge: Last chance for a Rare and Racy find as Sheffield shop prepares to close

Allen Capes outside Rare and Racy on Devonshire Street
Allen Capes outside Rare and Racy on Devonshire Street
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As Allen Capes serves a customer purchasing a heap of CDs and books at Rare and Racy in Sheffield city centre, the buyer pauses for a moment and shares his thoughts with the store’s owner.

“Thanks for being here for all these years,” he says, drawing an appreciative nod from Allen, who’s preparing to shut the independent bookseller’s doors after nearly 50 years.

Allen Capes serves a customer inside Rare and Racy in Sheffield

Allen Capes serves a customer inside Rare and Racy in Sheffield

The signs on the windows make the message clear - there’s a half-price sale on and everything must go.

Apart from a temporary pop-up venture next door, Allen is the last man standing at the row of shops earmarked for demolition where Rare and Racy is based on Devonshire Street.

The other traders have all moved - fashion boutique Syd and Mallory’s Emporium has relocated a few doors away, the Natural Bed Company has a new showroom on Fitzwilliam Street and the Rag Parade clothes shop has become JoJo’s General Store on Ecclesall Road.

The hugely controversial scheme to replace the row with a retail unit, restaurant and flats was approved despite 20,000 objections in 2015 by the council, which said its hands were tied by planning rules. Among the opponents was Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, who said Rare and Racy was a ‘global treasure’ that it would be a ‘crime to destroy’.

Now Allen’s lease is up, meaning July 1 will be his last day of trading - and he says there is still a feeling of disbelief among customers.

“We only put the signs up this week and a lot of people have been coming in and saying ‘Are you really closing down?’

“I’m feeling OK about it. I was 65 on the 16th of this month so at least I get a pension. I’m looking forward to doing something else for a change. But I would like to say thanks for all the good days here.”

Stock is going fast - even the bookshelves are up for grabs - but there is plenty left to buy, the shop remaining a packed, ramshackle treasure trove of second-hand volumes, art prints and records from the more outré end of the musical spectrum.

Allen has mixed feelings about the future of his kind of business, however.

“Most shops have got what they want you to buy in front of you, and that’s it. It’s an experience young people don’t want - and if they do know about it, they’re not interested in it.”

Rare and Racy was originally set up by Allen’s brother, John Capes, who left 19 years ago to set up an online firm. But Allen and his business partner Joe Mhlongo, who is no longer involved on a day-to-day basis, wanted to keep the shop going for as long as they could.

“The online business was obviously the way forward for bookselling,” remarks Allen, who was born in Hull, moved to Rotherham aged 11 and came to Sheffield in the 1970s, now living on Rangeley Road in Walkley, near the Bole Hills.

When Rare and Racy opened he was studying art and design at Rotherham Art College, and painted the shop, which was created in a former betting office - the ‘paying in’ and ‘out’ desks still exist at the counter.

Allen worked in different fields, including a spell in British Steel’s springs department, before steering Rare and Racy’s second premises on South Road, Walkley, which shut in the late 1990s.

“In those days you moved about because jobs were easier to get. I actually started working up at the other shop when my brother’s wife was pregnant and had to give birth. I packed up my job at the steelworks. The idea was that I would help out for three months.”

Allen then moved from Walkley to Devonshire Street in 1976.

“It’s been pretty good. At the time, when these places were set up, they were called alternative businesses - an alternative book and record shop for hippies.

“It’s much more individual than most shops, it’s got extra character. There’s an interest, rather than just looking to buy something.”

He worries that people are losing the enjoyment of browsing, and chancing upon an unexpected find.

“They just use the shop as a museum to look around. I think people associate buying a book with looking for it online and it coming through the post.

“A lot of people have come here, experienced a different kind of music, and gone on to listen to that. A young person will come in, listen to some music, say ‘What’s this?’ and take a picture of it for later.”

There is some hope, though - even if it’s down to a gender divide, observes Allen, father to three grown-up children.

“Young girls spend more on books than anybody else. It’s been noticeable over at least the past five years, that girls seem to buy more literary fiction than blokes.”

A first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, annotated by a fellow zoologist, represents the most notable item Allen has sold.

“My brother picked it up on a market stall in Doncaster. I think we got £750 for that in the mid-80s. John definitely didn’t buy it for £750. It’d be worth £170,000 now at least.”

Allen is not a collector himself, though - he has ‘always been around books’ in the shop, which holds enough of a hoard. But the support of regular customers down the years will be long remembered.

“We’ve generated more love than money. You can’t have both, but definitely the love’s worth more than the money. Some people have been customers and become friends - and some are sons and daughters of the people who started coming here.”

'Independent trade can thrive outside the city centre'

Allen Capes says Sheffield city centre is ‘bound to lose something’ if shops like Rare and Racy disappear - but agrees that independent trade is thriving elsewhere.

“On Sharrow Vale Road and Abbeydale Road, the people round there do actually shop there. That’s what this area, Devonshire Street and Division Street, was promoted as being originally.

“But most of the people on this road are on their way to or from something. I can remember as long as 20 years ago in Dore, there would be signs in shop windows saying ‘Use it or lose it’.”

The Sheffield photographer Dan Sumption is looking at creating a successor to Rare and Racy, without using the name, Allen reveals.

“The idea is that the city’s losing something and he’d like to pick it up somewhere else.”