First Meeting: Success!

It was a dark and wet Monday evening. Yet about 70 people turned up at this public meeting, and it was crammed full, with standing room only!

Introduction

David Gee, Chair, introduced himself as a long term resident of the area who was very concerned to see the impending closure in April of Bolingbroke Bookshop which Michael Gibbs had run for 31 years. David had organised the meeting with Viv Taylor Gee, Gwen Rosen, and Michael himself. He thanked them, along with over 35 Northcote Rd shops who had displayed the meeting notices; the 90 people who had signed Michael’s list of potential community bookshop supporters, Sarah Wyld who had kindly offered to take notes of the meeting, and Marco from N&S Wines who had given a 40% discount on the refreshments!  He thanked Michael with a photo of the bookshop taken by local graphic designer, Suzanne Perkins and framed for free by local picture framers, the Wall Game.

Michael explained that he had been finally defeated less by competition from Amazon & Kindle than by the business rates, which had soared in the last decade. He welcomed the idea of a community bookshop and would continue to be actively involved.

David then outlined the objective of the meeting – to see if there was sufficient local support for the creation of a community-owned bookshop. The establishment of a community bookshop would ensure the continued existence of a high quality, independent bookshop in Northcote Road, with Michael´s involvement. It would provide a centre of literary excellence where book lovers can meet, peruse, buy books and meet their authors, providing an excellent children’s section, outreach programmes and community activities, and an online service.

How could it be done?

The vision could be similar to that of Crediton Community Bookshop in Devon, which was being set up in much the same circumstances. The Crediton bookshop is a cooperative on the industrial provident society model, financed largely by individual shares of £ 20 each, with each shareholder, (irrespective of whether they hold one or the maximum shareholding of a thousand shares), entitled to one vote at the AGM of the community organisation set up to run the bookshop.  Crediton had already completed its work on the legal, organisational and financial structures involved, and had sold two thirds of the shares it needed to start trading. It could serve as a useful model.

David then introduced Diana Edmonds, Head of Libraries for GLL which is to take over Wandsworth Libraries from April 2nd. She told the meeting that Woolwich Library – which has seen 5,000 people through its doors in one day – is an example of the vibrancy that GLL can bring: a more liberated feeling and a sense of community, with art on display and activities.  Diana was offering to explore the idea of the bookshop being housed inside Northcote Library. Boundaries would have to be recognised and respected, and a fair rent agreed, but she did not see a conflict between library and shop, they both attract booklovers. It was likely that no business rates would have to be paid by the shop. GLL will look at the library finances, footfall, and talk to staff, with a view to hopefully extending opening hours.

But would there be room in the library? Diana’s speciality is designing libraries and she saw ways of greatly improving the library layout and space utilisation, with community access, with a cafe and possibly the proposed bookshop in the downstairs front area. In response to a comment that coffee, cakes and books were a nice fuzzy idea but did not go together, she said she had made it work well in other places, for example Crouch End Library has a thriving café. David pointed out that the library rather than the bookshop would run any café that was opened. Concerns about competition with local cafés should be addressed to them.

Viv explained that the initial idea for the Community Bookshop had been to rent a shop in Northcote Rd as Michael’s shop was now not available for this, and that the GLL/library proposal had come about via discussion between councillors and a local resident. It could be a financially attractive idea at least for the first few years, as long as various questions could be addressed, including opening hours.

The owner of Elegance Dry Cleaners spokesman asked, wryly, how many other businesses could be moved into the library?!

General discussion

The meeting was then thrown open for general discussion from amongst the audience, who had all expressed interest in the idea of a Community Bookshop: they included customers of the Bolingbroke Bookshop, and people from organisations such as the Northcote Business Network, and involved with active local residents’ networks such as NappyVallyNet.com and Street Life, as well as the Friends of Northcote Library who have introduced a host of good ideas into the library in the past year.

It was pointed out that the high business rates that had closed down Bolingbroke Bookshop would also be a big obstacle to setting up a community bookshop in its own premises. (In the bookshop’s case the rates had gone up by 500% in ten years, compared to residential council tax rises of 3%. Other examples were cited, including local sports shop Capstick whose rates had just risen from £10,000 to £22,000, along with a rent rise to £ 55,000).

The Portas Report was mentioned with its 28 proposals to save Britain’s high streets from losing a variety of local shops: the main conclusions and recommendations were displayed. Some participants were very concerned about the need for urgent steps to help small independent businesses to survive, and had already taken steps to campaign on this.   However, David Gee emphasized that the objective of the meeting was to see if there was support for a community bookshop, and a campaign about the wider issues should be separate.  (We have since learnt that a new campaign about supporting the independent shops is about to be conducted by Northcote Business Network.)

The shop vision

There were several local authors present. One noted that any successful bookshop had to have specialised knowledge of current trends and new books: a rounded service. It was made clear that the budget would include employing a qualified and knowledgeable manager, and other experienced staff part-time, as well as using some trained volunteers.

The aim would be to provide a broad range of services and activities as well as an ordering service, new literary novels, hardback factual books, an excellent children´s section, high quality books from niche publishers, including French books for our large local community. It was interesting to note that it was paperback sales that were suffering in the current climate, as Michael confirmed. It was important that the bookshop should be a peaceful place to browse. It would also organise or link up with events such as book readings, poetry, book signing, language teaching, talks from local authors, a cafe scientifique, multi media events, art, music, children’s and other community workshops, local history, and presentations by local charities. These could be done in association with the library.

Other ideas were mooted: a market stall in the interim between the bookshop closing and the community bookshop opening; using the professional skills and knowledge of the many parents – mostly mothers – who are at home; and using the street festival in Northcote Road on July 7th as an opportunity. Someone suggested making a list of landlords, and encouraging them to invest in the community: this would be an area for the Northcote Business Network to explore. There are many local artists who could be involved. Louise Gillard has been coordinating artists locally in the Wandsworth Artists’ Open House scheme, backed by the council.

Bookshop finance and expertise

The next area of discussion was finance and expertise. Cooperative UK provides published guidance, expertise and backup to emerging cooperatives, plus four days of legal services and support free of charge. Their publications and website are a mine of information and were recommended.

 The bookshop could be financed by:

a)      Community Shares – where the investors would be investing in the bookshop and the community. There were several different types of cooperatives, some profit-sharing, others ploughing any profits back into the shop or giving to local charities in the community . Decisions would need to be made on dividends, liability, tax relief, when redeemable, corporate shares, possible discounts for shareholders, etc.  As with Crediton, perhaps 60-75 % of the over £50,000 initially needed would come from the community shares –which could be bought by anyone with a love of the area or of books, as well as local people and their families, though the majority would be locally owned.

b)      Grants.   There were funds to draw on for support. Councillors had drawn our attention to the Wandsworth Big Society Fund, to which we could apply. There were other foundations which specialised in promoting and supporting co-operatives and social enterprises, or in high street revival. The Seed Enterprise Investment scheme was likely to give tax relief to investors.

c)      Donations and fund-raising. There were many local artists, musicians and entertainers who might be persuaded to contribute to the bookshop or help with fund-raising events. Local author Paul Bryers pointed out that authors themselves are now practically part of the entertainment industry: they don’t only write books, they are in demand for festivals and other events, promoting, signing, speaking, participating and teaching.

d)      Loans from banks such as the Cooperative Bank and Triodos Bank.

How we do it

The meeting then turned its attention to the tasks and organisation that would be needed over the next few months.

A Steering Group of some 8-12 people was suggested, and members of four subgroups with relevant skills and/or experience in relevant areas, ie

  • Legal – including how we are constituted, legal framework, business objectives, governance. This would initially work in conjunction with:
  • Financial – including SWOT analysis, share offer and business plan, raising funds and/or support. Michael would be happy to help the finance sub group to produce the business plan and associated financial flows.
  • Communications –  the website, branding, online sales, social media, promotion.
  •  “The vision” – including the shop itself, the books and associated literary, community and creative activities.

A management sub-group may be needed later.

It was pointed out that there are individuals who have knowledge & know-how who could advise a group on a specific issue without having to fully commit to the group itself. The room contained many such people!

David suggested that these groups should meet up in the next few weeks after Easter and there should be another big meeting before the summer to examine, discuss and agree the details to be presented by the subgroups and Steering group. It was likely to take several months to agree the details of the organisation and to raise the money. A representative from Crediton Community Bookshop could perhaps be invited to speak.

Daniel Everard offered to create the website for the bookshop organisation (“I commit” he said!).

There was an overwhelming show of hands of people who wanted the idea to go ahead, and would support it and buy shares. There is sufficient enthusiasm to create a viable community bookshop & to start by raising between£ 50,000 – 70,000. Can we do it? Yes we can! (Probably!! )

Everyone was invited to contact Viv Taylor-Gee if they can offer their help by being on a committee or subgroup &/or sharing their skills, knowledge, experience or enthusiasm.  Click here for contact form.

The meeting ended 15 minutes early, as the agenda had been completed. Wine and networking followed.

Cheering fact: Out of a total of 280 community shops established in the UK, only 10 have closed, which is a 96.5% success rate. (Cooperative UK)