Then One Day: Revolution in the Bookshop

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This week, we head to Veronica's hometown of Southampton, to learn about October Books, a bookshop that has been serving it's local community for 44 years. We'll find out how the shop has had to adapt through the ages, from fending off bailiffs to making international news.

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Veronica Gordon

1977, a year of political unrest when punk rock has pledged to fight against the system, and left wing activists protested against the growing presence of the far right group, the National Front. For the young and politicised of the day, there was a sense of revolution and turmoil in the air.

 

Bobby Noyes, October Books 

In the late 70s, there was quite a revolutionary atmosphere, certainly in comparison with what we’ve got today, and alternative and left-wing bookshops were being set up all over the country. And we decided in Southampton that we would take an empty shop and have a bookshop there.

 

Veronica Gordon

That’s Bobby Noyes, one of the founding members and volunteers at Southampton’s radical co-operative bookshop, October Books. I’m really excited about this episode. It’s from my hometown of Southampton and it’s about a bookshop that’s been a fixture of the city for my entire life. I’m a lifelong book lover and I have childhood memories of driving past that old building, longing to go in that bookshop that looked like none I’d ever seen before.

So, satisfy the child in me…What was it like in October Books when it was in Bevois Valley Road?

 

Bobby Noyes, October Books 

It was a centre again for like-minded people to get together and chat. So, you know, if you went in there almost any time out of the daily working hours that everyone has, then you’d meet someone that you knew or that you’d heard of. And there was a vegetable co-op next door, so it was a little sort of mini alternative.

 

Glyn Oliver, October Books 

It was part of that St. Mary’s thing. You had the West Indian Club, we used to go there a lot. And then we had that road and the veggie co-op and Dinans…and October Books was part of that. It was a bit rickety in there. It was nice; I liked it, but it was a bit rundown.

 

Veronica Gordon

That’s Glyn Oliver Bobby’s partner. He’s been a regular at the shop since the early days.

 

Glyn Oliver, October Books 

Just the labels there because to put up things like gay books was quite shocking. You know, it was the late 70s and it was a time of the National Front. Anyway, so they had great big shutters that had to go up on the shop every night. And if I was around, I’d help them put those great big painted – they were grey with a picture of trees and that of October – but they had to go up because there were a few attacks on the shop, because obviously of the far right and it was a radical bookshop.

 

Veronica Gordon

But over time, like cities and towns all over the UK, Southampton and its shops have started to change.

 

Bobby Noyes, October Books 

It’s got bigger and more impersonal, I feel. They built the big shopping complex at Westquay and that changed the whole orientation because before that, you’d go down to St. Mary’s where the market was – I used to go there every Saturday and get my veg – and there was a really good record shop there, Henry’s, and pubs and so on. It was quite a little culture. Yes. And the rest of Southampton was fairly boring. But when they put money into building the big Westquay building, as you know, a shopping mall, and the big names moved into there – Marks & Spencer’s and John Lewis and this sort of thing – then the focus of the city went much more in that direction. St Mary’s has got very little in the way of tempting you down there – you have a music venue still, I think.

 

Veronica Gordon

This nationwide trend toward big name brands and homogenous high streets, saw more and more consumers heading online to the bookselling giants. And sadly, by 2017, the UK had lost more than 1,000 independent book shops.

You’re listening to “Then One Day” and this is the story of how October Books, a community business, has survived 43 Octobers and counting. I’m Veronica Gordon.

I want to know like a little bit more about October Books. Give me like a potted history. How long have you been there first?

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

So, myself and three others took over the running of the bookshop about four and a half years ago. And yeah, we’ve moved premises three times. So, we started in a different part of town, working with the university but also with loads of local community groups, groups that were active in social change. So yeah, I mean I wasn’t involved back then. I was only about 10 years old when the bookshop started.

 

Veronica Gordon

This is Clare Diaper. Claire works as the strategic lead at October Books. Before joining the team, she led a hectic life as a chemical engineer, and was keen for a change of pace.

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

It was really a passion and an interest in community that came from the engineering and research work that I was doing that led me into a community bookshop.

 

Veronica Gordon

First of all, I just have to say, you seem very modest, because I happen to know you’ve had a bestseller. Tell me about that.

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

Yes. I mean, my initial connection with October Books was I’d written a book of walks from railway stations sort of in and around Southampton. Yeah, a book encouraging people to use local transport options to get out there in the countryside, but also to sort of walk more locally within the city centre. And yeah, I’d been selling it through October Books sort of prior to coming to work here. And yes, it was the Christmas number one bestseller in 2016.

 

Veronica Gordon

Claire was finally working in a place that actually aligned with her values. As soon as she and the new team took over in 2018, they realised it wasn’t going to be an easy ride.

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

So yeah, I’ll be completely honest here. When we took on running the business, four and a half or so years ago, certainly three or four months in, we did have a little visit from the bailiffs which for a new team taking on the business was a pretty stressful time. And, you know, I think the focus has really been coming back to the community and getting the support from our community. I think we’re all, you know, just really worried that October Books wasn’t going to survive after so long. It was very difficult. We did get in touch with some of the community members who had supported us financially and, you know, they were willing to step in and help out. But it did feel as if we needed to do something differently, that we couldn’t keep relying on support from the community to keep us going; that, you know, as a business, we needed to make sure that we’re viable. So yeah, it was a pretty scary time.

 

Veronica Gordon

Not only was the shop in debt, but the landlord was threatening to put up the rent, an additional expense that the business simply couldn’t afford. I think you could describe this as the fight or flight moment. On the one hand, they could have just given up and run away from the problem. But instead, they turned to their community for help, and amassed an army of book lovers who gave them the strength to fight on.

Within just a few short months of being in charge of October Books, Claire and the rest of the team handed their notice into the landlord and challenged the community instead, to help them raise enough money to buy an old bank building up the road.

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

I still pinch myself that we raised the money that we did; we did it over six months. So the owners of the premises that we wanted to buy gave us six months to raise the funds. And you know, it did come sort of quite close to the wire. We were still waiting for money to come in the week that we had to make the offer. But yeah, it’s just amazing to know that there’s a community out there who’d been supporting October Books for 40 years, who were really, you know, willing to stand up and make sure that it’s here for another 40.

 

Veronica Gordon

How much how much money was it? How much are we talking?

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

In total, the community raised around £330,000.

 

Veronica Gordon

Wow! Gosh.

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

So that was to purchase the building and do some of the renovation work. And yeah, we also got some funding from Co-Op and Community Finance, who are a cooperative lender, that made up the rest that we needed to complete the project. And we also worked with the local charity, the Society of St. James, who provide accommodation for people who have been homeless and provide support and accommodation. So actually, the top two floors of the building that we’re in is accommodation for 11 people who have come through the Society of St. James, who have been on the streets, but now have, a semi-permanent place to live. And that was an important part of the project that we needed to work with the Society of St. James to make the project viable.

 

Veronica Gordon

Eventually, it was time to make the move up the road to their new building. But if you have ever moved house, you’ll know that books are not an easy thing to move en-masse. So, the community stepped in once again.

 

Bobby Noyes, October Books 

So, there was a lot of stock that needed to be moved from just down the street. So, we made a huge chain and just passed the books along and got a huge crowd of people who just…

 

Glyn Oliver, October Books 

It was a Sunday, wasn’t it? It was a Sunday and we got there and there was about 20 people. And when you started, you had to go and walk to pass your book to the next one. By the time we finished, it was hundreds. There was the cafe. We’re coming out with coffees, and it was a wonderful day.

 

Bobby Noyes, October Books 

And passersby were stopping and saying, “Can I get a photo of you?” And subsequently when the shop opened, a woman from China, I think, came in – she was over here, I suppose to see family – and she said, “I had to come to this shop, because I saw it on the news in China”.

 

Veronica Gordon

Wow, that’s incredible.

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

There was a small article in the Guardian on the following day. And then the day after that, we had the New York Times and the Washington Post on the phone. Yeah, it was a good news story that travelled around the world and we were just blown away by that, really.

 

Veronica Gordon

So, what was that like for you to speak to those international media outlets and tell the world really about October Books?

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

Well, because it was moving week, we were all rather busy packing boxes. So, we just didn’t have time to think about it, basically. It just happened. And, you know, we took it in turns to do interviews with various organisations and radio stations. And, yeah, I think it was good that we didn’t really have time to stop and take stock; it just sort of happened.

 

Veronica Gordon

Amongst all the excitement of the move, the team were aware that if they were going to help October Books last another 40 years, they were going to need to create bigger and more fundamental changes to how the business was run.

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

The business was definitely started as a worker co-op -it was the people who came together who wanted to run the business who had the say in how the business was run. But when we decided we were going to move premises and we were looking to engage with the community more, we switched to what’s called a multi-stakeholder co-operative. So that meant that the community could then become members and they can come along to members’ meetings and have a say in the direction of the business. In the governance structure, we have a committee, which is made up of the workers plus four or five other volunteer committee members, again, members of our community, and they help provide some of that strategic direction.

 

Veronica Gordon

And the changes haven’t just been happening backstage either. They’ve also totally diversified their offering as new employee, Jamie, explains.

 

Jamie, October Books 

I do think that the kind of slogan we had of “more than a bookshop” is an important thing to sort of get into people’s heads. Everything that we do is kind of involved in the community. So, like putting on events – obviously, when we used to do the pop-up vegan cafe on the Mondays, that was a really nice thing. The fact that we sell Fairtrade organic food as well, like it’s a place where you can come, and you get more things. We try to support as many local artists as we can – so I think at the beginning of last year, in the community space, we started to do an exhibition, which I kind of put together. And every month, the idea – obviously, pre-COVID which kind of destroyed it completely – was to have like a rolling month of artists who come in and exhibit their work around and they would just be for sale and things like that. So, it’s just kind of that combination of many different elements that are all focused on not necessarily what’s best for the shop, in terms of like profit-wise or money-wise; it’s genuinely what’s best for the community, and what we can offer them with the space we’ve got.

 

Veronica Gordon

How does October Books make its money?

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

Primarily, and historically, it’s always been sales. So yeah, we’re very trading focused. And since we moved, we have the income stream from the community space. Obviously, this last year, that hasn’t been so great. But actually, the online sales have come in and helped cover what we’ve lost over this last year on the community space. So, I think the fact that we’ve got quite a few different revenue streams, we’re not just reliant on the sale of one product. But certainly, over the last three years, we’ve had some income coming in from grants and that’s sort of slowly increased over the last two to three years. So yeah, we’ve had some funding to do some work in the community space to finish off the kitchen. So yes, primarily trading income but a small percentage of grant income too.

 

Veronica Gordon

October Books is now thriving. The new move and changes to the business have enabled the profits to improve year on year, which in turn has allowed them to take on more staff. And thankfully, they’re not the only indie bookstore that’s on the up. The Booksellers’ Association reported that in 2020, the number of bookshops in the UK and Ireland had grown for the third consecutive year. It appears, at least for books, more people are trying to support local, and I’m so here for it.

What’s it like being a community bookshop in a world or in a city of mainstream bookshops?

 

Clare Diaper, October Books 

I know what I love about it, that I don’t hear in other shops around the city, is people who come in, generally meet somebody else who they know. But I also like that we can help those who wouldn’t necessarily have access to books. We try and connect in with local schools and make sure we can provide books to local schools, particularly those who wouldn’t necessarily have access to funds in the libraries. On World Book Day, we provide books out to local schools. Yeah, I’m pretty sure some of the big-name bookshops don’t connect in that well.

 

Glyn Oliver, October Books 

And they’re very keen on books themselves.

 

Bobby Noyes, October Books 

Well, it is a bookshop.

 

Glyn Oliver, October Books 

Well, I know. They do like reading. Johnny in particular, and Jamie – they’re reading all the time.

 

Bobby Noyes, October Books 

Oh yes! I’m just reading a book about the Plantagenets which I bought here. And I came in the other day and said to…I can’t remember who it was behind the counter…that that book on the Plantagenets is really, really good. And he said, “Oh, yes, I know”. And, you know, you can just have a chat and it’s not like a shop where, however pleasant the assistants are, they’re not that interested. “Is it a tin of beans? Is it a book? Is it a record? Who cares? As long as I get paid.” But it’s not like that here – people are avid readers as much as we are.

 

Glyn Oliver, October Books 

Interacting physically with the book is so important. And I think it’s still important to adults. I don’t think Kindle has taken off as much as they thought it would. To actually feel the weight, the way it’s cut even, I think a book is a wonderful artefact.

 

Veronica Gordon

Thank you to Claire, Bobby, Glyn and Jamie. I have to admit, I’m full of hometown pride after this episode. It’s been inspiring to hear about a group of people in my city, who back in the late 70s were so dedicated to positive change that they created a meeting place for like-minded people. Since then, it has grown into more than a bookshop. It has become a welcoming space for everyone in the community. I never did get to go into the old October Books as a child, but I certainly will be visiting it in its new home on the high street. 

Thanks to Power to Change who brought you this podcast, and to Pixiu for producing. I’d love to hear what you think about this episode, and all the stories we feature on “Then One Day”. So please leave us a rating and review or send us a message on social media. We’re on Twitter and Instagram at @peoplesbiz, that’s spelt People’s BIZ. We’ll be back in two weeks’ time with a special bonus episode, featuring Caroline Afolabi-Deleu from an organisation called Success4All, who will be giving us her top tips on how to set up a business working with children. But until then, from me Veronica Gordon, thanks for listening.