What a difference a year makes!

A year ago, Southampton’s favourite bookshop, co-operatively run October Books, moved into their new premises. We were delighted to support them in their aims and we’ve caught up with them recently to see what a difference a year makes.

October Books has been serving the good people of Southampton with radical and alternative books, wholefoods and ethical cleaning products and toiletries, and their popular range of cards, for forty years. About two years ago, they were told that their rent was going up – again – and to safeguard their future the team started looking into the possibility of buying their own building and reclaiming some of the high street for the community.

‘We have always been so much more than a bookshop,’ says collective member and worker Clare Diaper, ‘and to take that forward we wanted to provide a space, right in the heart of our neighbourhood, that could be owned by our community, somewhere to have the alternative, challenging, boundary-pushing conversations that sit alongside the alternative, challenging, boundary-pushing books, products and magazines we’ve sold for all these years. Somewhere to allow community to do what it wants to do’.

This ‘Community Space’ was always envisaged as being something that would – to a certain degree – run itself and therefore provide a profitable income stream at low cost to the organisation. Hirers are responsible for setting up and packing up, leaving the small bookshop team to focus on customers and the running of the business.

October Books worked with Hampshire’s leading homelessness charity, the Society of St James to turn the old bank into a true community building. The upper two floors were sold to St James and now provide high quality, supported accommodation.

‘It felt a bit daunting. We knew that we weren’t just moving premises but making a step change in the way the business was managed. The shop had been run by one person for many years and the team who made the decision to move had all applied individually to take up the reins. One of our members has described it a bit like being an arranged marriage’, Clare laughs, ‘is this a unique way for a co-op to be formed? The move from a one full timer to a team comprising four part timers meant that we had a lot of work to do around process and structure, governance, and accountability, too. We’ve all had to work harder than we might have expected, and it has been pretty stressful. But we knew what we wanted to achieve and we had our amazing community alongside us, every step of the way.’

The move wasn’t without it’s challenges and Clare cautions anyone else looking to buy a building. ‘Pay upfront and outright to get a full structural survey. We paid for a standard survey which was all sound and we weren’t advised to investigate roof spaces and hidden structural components. However, as the renovations got underway a whole series of additional works came to light which even our contingency budget couldn’t resolve. A full and detailed structural survey, that’s one thing I would definitely recommend.’ There was a plus side to this in that the additional roofing works required did allow the installation of solar panels by a local supplier.

Today, October Books is 500metres and a world away from their old shop. The bookshop is bustling, and beautiful. The move brought an immediate 15% uplift in sales which continue to be above previous years – and there a busy and vibrant programme of events run both by the shop itself, and external hirers. The Community Space hosts art exhibitions, pop up cafe’s, Quaker meetings, film screenings as well as quarterly Members Meetings. Active Member Sub Groups take on various responsibilities – one of which has been preparing for the first birthday party! There is still – and will always be – work to do – the team are looking forward to analysing their business information better as their systems give richer information back.

Clare finishes our chat saying, ‘We were so glad to be supported by Co-operative and Community Finance. They were friendly and approachable and as a co-op themselves, shared our passion for what we do. We were very lucky that one of the team was based in Southampton so they were right on our doorstep. The Register of Interest was very straightforward to complete and fact that they had a structured approach really helped. The questions were simple but helped us frame the information that our other investors needed, and it felt good to be asked questions after we’d submitted our application – that critical review and feedback on what we were doing was very useful. It feels like we’re truly part of the co-operative money-go-round’

You can support October Books by shopping online with Hive Stores and selecting them – if you’re in Southampton on Saturday the 2nd you’re invited to their party!