Inspiring stories – October Books delivers the goods!

We recently asked the organisations we’ve previously lent to and supported to share stories of lockdown trading, to celebrate the resilience and ingenuity of the sector at this time. We’re delighted to share Southampton’s bookshop co-operative October Books amazing story – they have developed a thriving delivery service and kept their busy events calendar going, online

Thanks so much for asking for us to contribute!

October Books is an independent bookshop in Southampton, and we’ve been operating since 1977! But we’re more than just a bookshop – we’re radical, community-based and cooperatively run. As well as selling books, we also stock ethical and Fairtrade household and storecupboard items, and have a newly built community space at the rear of the building for gatherings and events that are organised by ourselves and groups in the local area. The ethos of the shop is to promote community and environmental and social justice for all. (You may know us from our human chain event which unexpectedly gave us some global press coverage in 2018!)

Since lockdown much of the operational side has changed, but our aims remain true and we’ve adapted to ensure we can still deliver them. Initially we thought it would be a struggle to trade through, but we swiftly realised what a strong situation we are in as a community business in a property that we own. Being a coop means we have the backing and support of our members, and having recently bought our premises with the help of loanstock from the community and loans from our keen supporters Co-operative and Community Finance means that people are really willing us to thrive. Upon moving to our new premises we took the initiative to ensure we had an appealing and functional website to reflect our spangly new building. This tool has been vital during the covid-19 crisis in keeping our customers and community informed as to what we are doing and how we are doing it. Having these foundations in place, has enabled us to adapt and respond in a strong and positive way, and to continue to trade over the last couple of months.

We have closed our physical doors, but are able to continue selling books and food via our website, phone and emails. We are then delivering orders via bicycle, and (safely) by hand direct to peoples’ doors. Orders going further afield are being delivered by mail. We are also part of a local scheme by Made In Here: Southampton who are collating orders from other independent traders on Portswood High St, allowing customers to take a virtual walk down the street and have all of their shopping delivered to their door (via cargo bike or electric van!) without leaving the safety of their own home.

We have switched our (free entry) events schedule to be online via Zoom – this has worked beautifully for author talks and book groups we would normally have held on the shop floor. This added level of accessibility means we’ve actually had an increase in our usual attendance and have attracted people from as far away as the States! Attendees have been generous in their donations when we have passed around our virtual hat.

The workers here are also taking the opportunity to embark on online training including the Community Business Trade Up programme and webinars and workshops courtesy of CoopsUK and Power to Change,to make sure when we are able to open our doors to the public we can do so in the safest possible way, and to ensure October Books continues for another 40+ years!

The challenges we face include loss of revenue from our community space, and the likely cancellation of our twice annual pop-up stall at the university. Our business model relies on income from both of these. In order to tackle this we are launching a crowdfunder (this week until end of June) selling October Books tokens. If we reach our target of £2k in book token sales this will be match-funded by Solent LEP. Wish us luck!

The support from the coop community and wider network has been incredible. As has the love for independent bookshops. It keeps our spirits up seeing the orders coming in, and the messages from our customers and suppliers that accompany each order make the hard work worthwhile.

Having been trading for 40+ years means we are blessed with a hugely loyal and diverse customer base – some are long term investors, some have volunteered or worked at the shop, some have stumbled upon us, some have actively sought us out as a radical bookshop, some just live locally and buy the occasional greetings card – they are all an important part of the OB family. We are doing what we are doing in order to make sure we don’t just survive this global health crisis, but can thrive and can continue to be a resilient part of the local community.

When the supply chain faltered we looked to the shop floor to promote what we already had in stock. We created a series of blogs entitled  ‘BC Books’ at the start of lockdown which shone a light on books that hit our shelves just before Covid-19 struck (hence BC) and didn’t get the attention they deserved when they initially came into the shop. We also developed “What do You Mean You Haven’t Read…?” blogs which are highlighting titles that we all have on our reading lists, but never quite found the time to tackle… until now!

Due to our eclectic customer base, we get a wide range of requests, but you can see the trends – so we’re very much being led by what people want.

At the beginning people were taking advantage of our food lines – we were carrying a lot of stock that was no longer available at the supermarkets. Then there were requests for board games, puzzles, quizzes and word/number games. Knowing that people have been indoors and under the same roof we realised the importance of keeping the kids occupied (and accordingly parents stress-levels to a minimum) and have been giving out free kids books with every order.

It’s a testament to the OB community that customers have been ordering items to be delivered as care packages to key-workers. This led us to offer a gift wrapping and card writing service too, as many people were no longer placing orders for themselves, but for friends and family members they were now unable to see in person. It’s a reflection of the kindness that exists, regardless of the hardships that many are facing at the moment, that customers are taking advantage of our scheme to add items (tins, pasta, soap, chocolate, toothpaste, etc) to their order that we can pass on to the local foodbank.

Alongside the delivery service, these are things we are definitely going to take forward once things are “back to normal”.