Attercliffe's rising fortunes: US jazz singer serves up music and food at old Sheffield library

Attercliffe's former library is a place of firsts.

Thursday, 15th November 2018, 10:26 am
Updated Thursday, 15th November 2018, 10:29 am
Aaron Stewart, pictured at The Library Cafe and Restaurant. Picture: Marie Caley

The red-brick building close to the corner of Leeds Road was Sheffield's oldest library, opening in 1894 in answer to demand from steelworkers and their families keen for self-improvement, and later became the city's original job centre when staff started listing vacancies from local employers.

Books stopped being lent on the premises in 1986, and afterwards the rooms were used as offices - but now the site has been given a whole new purpose.

The Library Cafe and Restaurant. Picture: Marie Caley

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Aaron Stewart, an American former Democrat commissioner and singer whose band won three Grammy Awards, has opened The Library Cafe and Restaurant, a place that doubles as a music venue as well as serving food and drinks.

It is, he feels, another sign that Attercliffe is on the up.

"I think it's a very exciting time," says Aaron. "I've heard it was once a very buzzing, thriving community. I think it has the possibility of that happening again. I wanted to be in on the ground level."

His path to Sheffield has been an interesting one.

Attercliffe Children's Library in December 1959 - when it was deemed to have the best Christmas decorations of any children's library in Sheffield.

Aged 52, he started out as a jazz singer before auditioning for the successful R&B and gospel ensemble Sounds of Blackness. He departed to work with Morris Hayes, Prince's keyboard player and leader of the star's New Power Generation backing group, becoming his PA for three years in Los Angeles. Morris helped Aaron form a music management outfit called Paradise Hill Productions but, during his time in LA, Aaron's father died. 

"That was my first time losing a parent and it really took the wind out of my sails," he says. 

Aaron left the music industry and moved back to his home city of Parsons, Kansas, to spend time with his mother and family. "My father worked for the city, he was the building inspector. That's why I decided to run for commissioner in his honour. A lot of people knew him. I think that was the main reason I was elected."

However, five years ago when he was still living in LA, Aaron met his future husband, Peter, who is from Penistone and works for HMRC. "I moved here in January this year. We got married in February, so that's what brought me to Sheffield."

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On his arrival, Aaron returned to music and met the library building's owner, businessman David Slater, while working on the studio at the SADACCA centre on the Wicker.

"He and I got stuck in the lift together, we were talking and he told me about this space he had," says Aaron.

The original idea was for a coffee shop, but the plan grew when the possibility of adding a stage was discussed.

"The space itself screamed live music, intimate venue - the capacity is 200 people, so it's a nice intimate venue for music and food," says Aaron. "The acoustics are amazing, so that helped a lot."

The history of the building, part of a wider complex along with the old swimming baths next door, attracted him 'first and foremost'. "It's been interesting to hear from people who lived in Attercliffe and used it when it was a functioning library when they were children. I'm enjoying hearing the stories people are sharing of their parents bringing them there, or they came here to read the newspaper, or came by after work and then went to the baths next door. It's really fascinating."

The Library opened at the beginning of October - food starts at 11.30am and runs throughout the day. Tapas, sandwiches, soup, a children's menu and cocktails are all on offer, and every Thursday there is Jazz on the Cliffe.

"It's a weekly jazz series featuring local and national artists as well as international artists starting next year, and we're doing music on Saturdays as well - that's more R&B, soul, funk, disco and house," explains Aaron.

The food 'represents Sheffield's diversity'. Chef Justin Brooks - a local who worked on cruise ships for seven years - came up with a list of dishes including curries, Mediterranean cuisine and traditional English fare.

Meanwhile Aaron has enjoyed acquainting himself with Sheffield's steelmaking heritage and its musical pedigree.

"I feel very humbled and honoured that the music community have embraced me and what I'm trying to accomplish here," he says. "I really want it to be a space for the community."   

He keeps his hand in by performing one song on Thursday nights with whoever is playing, 'but the focus is really about showcasing other artists and acts', he stresses. "It's not about me. I host the evening, but I'm definitely not the focal point and nor do I want to be."