CASE STUDY: On the front foot through challenging times – October Books

In January 2020, October Books, a worker-owned and run community bookshop in Southampton, was on the verge of taking great new strides.

“We’d settled into our new premises after moving towards the end of 2018,” says the shop’s Clare Diaper. Going forward, we wanted to increase sales, take on more staff, grow the business and the community space we hire out to groups and organisations.”

October Books has been a co-op since 1981, selling ethical cleaning products, vegetables and vegan food as well as books. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everything changed. “Our initial reaction of was one of panic,” Clare recalls.

“We first had to decide if we could carry on trading and begin doing deliveries. Then we had to figure out how many staff we could afford to keep on a reduced income.”

Fortunately, October Books was able to access the Assist Package launched by The Hive to help co-operative businesses experiencing difficulties during the pandemic. They teamed up with Hive Provider Nathan Brown who lent his expertise to help the bookshop respond to the pandemic, remain resilient and find a way forward.

“We immediately identified some grants they could apply for and savings they could make. After helping the co-op furlough four of the eight-strong team, we worked together to project the impact of COVID-19 on their immediate cashflow and future financial position,” says Nathan.

“Having Nathan’s help meant we were on the front foot with the majority of the funding that was available,” Clare adds. “He gave us the confidence that it would be okay in such uncertain times.

“Nathan did some predictive budgeting for different scenarios – what would work and what wouldn’t – and signposted us to a community business mutual aid group.”

October Books already had a digital product catalogue, which enabled them to quickly convert to an online shop. This saw demand for food initially exceed that for books and the co-op began attracting new business.

“We have a wider customer base now,” says Clare. “Because our suppliers aren’t the same as the big supermarkets, we’ve had products in when no-one else had. We had toilet roll when no-one else had it. We were a bit more resilient in our supply chain.”

The co-op has also been part of an online ‘virtual high street’ that was set up to promote local businesses during the lockdown. And when they took their literary events online, they began attracting attendees from around the world.

But book selling is still very much core to their business, says Clare: “Our members have stepped up and recognised they can contribute, not just supporting us financially but being more inventive and creative in selling books.”

“A co-operative way of thinking has made that happened. If we were a regular bookshop there wouldn’t be so many minds. Collective wisdom. The more people you have involved the more resilient an idea will be.”

With the shop now re-opened, October Books plans to continue with much of their pandemic business model. They’re grateful for the learning and how being a co-op has got them through a challenging time. “The willingness of everyone involved in the co-op to take responsibility has helped drive us forward. And our co-operative values have seen us make valuable new connections with other organisations,” says Clare.

“We’re so grateful for The Hive’s support. Being prepared and on the front foot has helped us the most. It’s made us proactive rather than reactive – and we’ve remained in control.”

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Written by Jennifer Banks
Updated: 09/07/2020