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Don’t Call Me Shop-a-Billy!

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(But there is a lot of good stuff to buy at the Rave…)

Usually, our shopping at the Rockabilly Rave is something squeezed in between the important bits – catching up with friends, dancing and listening to great music live and on record. This year we were lucky enough to get down on the Thursday evening, giving us all of Friday to take in the stalls in a more relaxed fashion and reflect on just what variety and quality there is on offer on the scene these days.

Of course, there have always been stalls at weekenders, and since my very first visit I’ve come home clutching a handful of purchases from the overwhelming array of records on sale. But thirty-odd years ago, that and a few T-shirts was about it. As the weekenders grew, though, so did the retail opportunities, but beyond the record stalls, the focus for clothing and 50s bric-a-brac tended to be the Sunday morning outside sale where, although the prices were always a good deal more realistic than you’d find in many other places, the stock comprised largely a limited supply of original items circulating steadily around, fuelled only by those with the means and initiative to get across to the States in pre-EBay days and source vintage clothing.

There are still those who specialise in original items, and if your taste (and wallet) extend to some beautifully preserved pieces of very select 50s couture, then you could do worse than seek out the stalls run by John Day, Nick Barnes, Debbie Dunn and Timebomb Vintage. They’re not, though, the sort of thing you’d be happy putting into everyday use, and as each piece is a one-off, there’s always the challenge of finding what you’re looking for in a size that works for you. What’s most striking about the Vintage and Retro Shopping Mall as it has now become is that the generation of avid young clothes and accessory collectors from the 80s and 90s scene have grown into a string of outlets commissioning superb reproductions of original items in authentic materials. It would be impossible to do credit to all of them, and in picking out a few of our regular favourites, I’d hate to imply any criticism of the others, but I can only write about the ones I know well. There’s a fair degree of overlap, but Freddies of Pinewood have become Mrs M’s choice spot for jeans and trousers – the team there have mastered the classic ladies 50s cut and come up with a product that works as well for day-to-day wear as for an evening out. Also good for jeans, and a good deal more, is our pal Dave Bradbury at Geronimo. Every year, he adds another classic design to his range, particularly for blokes, all in just the right fabrics and a range of colourways. My only problem is that his stuff is so good, you end up having to stash it away for a while so as not to be wearing what everyone else is! While you’re on the Geronimo stall, it’s also worth checking out the range of tongue in cheek vintage-inspired T-Shirts – very handy if you’re loath to declare allegiance to any one brand: Norman Motorcycles, anyone? Dave also has a wonderful eye for a sticker, and no record box can go unadorned for long once you’ve had a look at what’s on offer.

Other good sources for men’s shirts and jackets are La Riviera and Rocket Originals, but it’s for their shoes that we usually beat a path to the Rocket stall. Classic designs with no messing about, in good quality materials and at a price that would compete with any decent high street outlet, the Rocket range lets you build up a collection of styles and colours that won’t break the bank. Staying with shoes, new kids on the mall are Pena Haus, a European manufacturer producing very high quality classic designs in leather that will stand years of regular wear. They, like Rocket, base their designs on 1950s originals to give the satisfaction of wearing the authentic article but fresh out of the box, and it’s clear that the passion of owners Suzanne and Pedro is reflected in the product. Across the board, it’s great that these are items that can be worn every day by those of us with a genuine love of 50s design, not just in terms of their durability, but also thanks to the quality of manufacture that avoid any sense of being items fit only for wear to ‘vintage dressing up’ events.

It’s not just clothing, either. I’d be padding massively if I pretended to know anything about the ladies accessory stalls, but there’s lots of them and very good they look, too. And vintage glasses, and hair dressing products, and belts, and handbags. One new stall that stood out, though, was Retroshade, the brainchild of engineer Mark Welland who took advantage of a period of enforced leave to work out how to manufacture lampshades in the original 50s fibreglass style. He’s more than mastered the craft now, and his stall featured a mouthwatering array of shades and other wire and fibreglass constructions ranging from huge contraptions big enough to top a full-blown 50s American lampstand, down to the more petite versions suitable for our bijou British period homes. Unlike the fabric equivalents, he’s avoided screenprinting, so every item is hand finished, giving the purchaser the chance to acquire a bespoke item decorated to fit with the style of a particular lamp or their home decor. One of his creations found its way home with us to adorn an original Sputnik lamp that’s been crying out for something better than the upturned 80s retro shade it acquired when I first restored it, and we’re now in contact with Mark to come up with designs for a couple more restored lamps that need that special finishing touch.

Oh yes, and the record stalls are still there, and as absorbing as ever. Rhythm Bomb, Rebound, Spindrift, Bob Thomas’ Bim Bam, and our pals from Sounds That Swing were all in attendance, tempting us with quality compilations, reproductions, new items acquired just in time for the Rave, and those special under-the-counter boxes that set the vinyl and shellac collectors’ hearts a-flutter. The Sunday morning flea market’s still there, too – comfortably brought inside and still proving that the rocking crowd would still rather recycle their surplus items at a fair price to those who truly appreciate them than try for that quick eBay buck.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Shop-a-billy, and the draw of the Rave for us is the music and the company every time, but for quantity and quality of authentic 50s shopping, you’d have to go a long way to beat it.

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Clive Montellier is a writer, photographer and occasional DJ, with a fascination for the popular culture and social history of Britain and America from the 1930s to the 1960s. His blog is at: www.midcenturychap.com