Living Oasis: Leading with Coffee for this Weekend’s Openings

Updated 14/3/2010 to add Watford
Living Oasis Sutton, 10th March 2010

Living Oasis Sutton, 10th March 2010

It promises to be an exciting weekend for many of those left out in the cold by Biblica at Christmas time as Nationwide Christian Trust‘s rollout of Living Oasis stores continues around the country. Here we see the new sign up at Sutton, juxtaposed with a ‘Shop To Let’ sign, Biblica’s inglorious legacy to the UK had Living Oasis not stepped in to rescue so many of the abandoned Wesley Owen bookshops and their staff.

In places, as Ray George made clear in his recent interview with Clem Jackson, those ‘To Let’ notices are likely to remain or reappear as the new organisation seeks out better premises more suited to the new vision:

We are looking to lead with the coffee shop and not the Christian bookshop and we believe that we will add a further 60% to the turnover; this is the difference between profit and loss.

The bookshops we have acquired are too small, so in most cases we are looking to relocate. We have taken temporary leases on the current bookshop sites for either three or six months, but we’re negotiating hard. We are in a buyer’s market looking to open new shops – and that’s going to happen.

The footprint of our shops will probably be three times the size of the average Wesley Owen shop we have. We want the coffee shop to be prominent but we don’t want it to seem as though the coffee shop is all we’ve got. Off from the coffee shop there will be a separate lounge and we’re going to have child-friendly zones too.

Here, then, are this Saturday’s official Living Oasis openings, A-Z by location:

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is entirely convinced by  the Christian coffee shop idea: Johnny Laird — looking forward to Croydon’s anticipated re-opening — asks, pointedly:

Do we need to create our own Christian coffee shops, or should we be drinking our Java for Jesus in those places – those “third places” that already exist?

In the midst of all the excitement — almost palpable on facebook — it’s an uncomfortable question, but it surely needs to be asked: what do you think?

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16 thoughts on “Living Oasis: Leading with Coffee for this Weekend’s Openings

  1. It would be interesting to know, having heard that Living Oasis may keep their coffee shops open in the evening, whether they will also open on Sunday. Normally Christian bookshops adamantly refuse to open on Sunday, whereas, strangely to my mind, Cathedral shops admantly insist on opening on Sunday to sell to visitors.

  2. Hmm – got to say I don’t know about the Chrstian Coffee Shop focus – well not for Christian bookshops that is.

    I am an ardent fan of Coffee & Coffee Shops, as anyone that reads the shop blog or follows me on twitter knows, good ones with hand crafted flat whites or seriously good texturised and coffee arted Caramel lattes – yum.

    Indeed I have even had bookshop nights in my local indie coffee house in Lincoln, and would love it if we could do more together.

    However as nice as it is and as lovely as the idea of coffee and books is, all I can think of is how well it didn’t work for Borders in the end.

    Yes Waterstones has coffee shops in them but they almost segregate them for the most part, it’s just an additional franchise feature usually on a secondary floor or at the back of the shop – the focus is still on the books with the coffee shop being an addition, whereas Living Oasis seems to be aiming at making the coffee shop more the feature and the books the secondary issue which seems more like the Borders model.

    I’m out on this one – I hope it works, but I admit to reservations on it too.
    Norwich Christian Resource Centre with it’s wonderful forget me not cafe has shown the coffee shop model can be a great addition, however again the coffee shop is not the main focus, you go through the books to the coffee shop again, the books do take the lead – or at least that has always been my impression and for me that’s the way it should be with a bookshop, Christian ones being no exception to that.

    Personally I like my coffee shops to be coffee shops and my bookshops to be, well, bookshops mostly – as much as for any reason as it helps widens the local Indie business portfolio and potentially increases the working economy of an area – something I think we should also think more of as an issue of social justice and fair trade in a wider way.

    But that’s just my thoughts, and to be honest if Max (my local fave Coffee shop owner) moved into the cafe in the market hall where I am I would be so very very happy – but then that’s probably down to the fact that my good coffee fix would be so much nearer :0) as its situated right next to me – however I can honestly say that the cafe being right next to me does little for my trade as few of my customers actaully make use of it, they’re visiting me to buy books mostly.

  3. I must confess, my feelings are similar to those of Melanie and Johnny.

    On the one hand, I’m really excited that Living Oasis have kept so many bookshops alive, at least for the short term, and more so, that so many of my former colleagues now have jobs doing what they loved again. However, in many ways, I have a lot of reservations about the focus of this venture… and this is coming from someone who was actively trying to introduce coffee to WO Birmingham.

    I’m a great coffee lover. I drink it a lot, and am also “Barista Trained” in the art of making a fine cup o’ Joe.

    What’s more, I think “Christian” coffee shops can work great. My favorite coffee place in the world is “The House” in Calgary, Canada (http://www.thehousecoffee.ca/ ) which is owned, and run by the first alliance church, Calgary, over there.

    I’m just not sure that a Living Oasis coffee shop will cut the mustard… I hope I’m wrong, but my fear is that “leading with coffee” isn’t going to work so well for them.

    See, The House is great, not because it’s a christian coffee shop, but because it’s a really good coffee shop (rated 90% positive by Urban Spoon). It’s located in Kensington (which is the hub of the trendy, urban, twentysomething scene in the city) and has more coffee shops per square mile than anywhere in about five hundred miles.

    Kensington is home to the Roasterie, a world renowned purveyor of fine coffees, which roasts its own beans on site, and STILL, in this market, “The House” manages a 90% positive rating.

    It does it because it doesn’t just lead with coffee, it’s staff live, breathe, dream (and yes, even occasionally drink) coffee!

    What’s more, the house have in the past tried other things there (including selling books, music and a 24/7 prayer boiler room to name just a few.) But the reality is, if you wanna succeed at coffee, and to increase turnover by 60% they’re REALLY going to need to succeed at coffee, it needs to be your main, and perhaps only, focus.

    There is a reason Starbucks don’t really bother selling music any more, why successful coffee shops in book shops (like Waterstones) are ALWAYS franchises independently staffed and almost entirely separate from the book side of the business.

    A good coffee shop needs at least two people taking orders, and as many making them at all times, and a successful bookshop needs committed, dedicated staff who will spend an hour making sure you have the right product if need be.

    With the best will in the world, I cant see it working as they have suggested unless you have two separate staff teams dedicated to either coffee or general retail

    Living Oasis either need to lead with the Bookshop, and have cheap, decent, but relatively “instant” coffee as a tack on sale, (something like the Mars Flavia machines we were looking at for WO Birmingham), Go all out as a coffee shop, offering a smattering of books and gifts as “tack on sales” in addition to the coffee (neither of which will increase turnover by 60% however) or seek out premises which allow you to offer a coffee shop and book shop staffed and run basically independently from one another, which may indeed increase your turnover by 60% (though it seems like a big ask to me), will also increase your running costs, perhaps so much so as to basically negate any benefit the coffee shop brings.

    Still, i hope it works for them, and, from what i have heard from the team, they seem willing to make changes if things don’t work as planned.

  4. “Off from the coffee shop there will be a separate lounge and we’re going to have child-friendly zones too.”

    Hmmm- one of the critical retailing issues is making space work for you- the old ‘£s per square foot’. Lounges & child-friendly zones (as such) don’t generate turnover….

    Like the other contributors, I really hope it works. But I would have concerns if it was my business where these plans were being put into place. As Luke says, better to ‘pair’, and set up an excellent Coffee Shop to make money, and subsidise the Book Shop- which (these days) probably won’t……

  5. I have to say that I find it staggering that almost before this new initiative has got off the ground the critics are out in force. In a climate where we could have seen many towns and cities left without an evangelical Christian Bookshop thank God for those brave enough to do something – and do something different.

    I wonder if any of those so far criticising Living Oasis have been to one of their presentations or openings or have spoken to Ray George or any of the NCT board. I have and have come away with a clear feeling that they truly believe they are doing God’s will in developing these new outlets. I have seen local church leaders not only wholeheartedly getting behind an intended local initiative but suggesting and standing behind a second outreach development.

    I believe that this trade has needed a shake-up. I have met no-one so far who has argued that. For the retailers this settling in period following the end of “old” STL is still causing certain supply difficulties yet there is generally a new air of optimism. Across the trade there are prayers for Ray George and his team – even in one case the management of another Christian Bookshop in the same town as a Living Oasis visited them to pray for the L O team and its success.

    As is often the case (ashamedly so in Christian circles) negative rumours abound. I have even been asked in a shop why part of the Living Oasis plan is to go into towns to oppose existing Christian Bookshops! I think they’ve got their work cut out replacing former Wesley Owen shops and looking at locations where there is currently no such shop!

    Let us all uphold Ray George, the whole Living Oasis team and, in fact, the entire Christian retail and distributive trade in this country in prayer. At a time when the country is still reeling from the recession and in the general retail market shops are closing at an almost unprecedented rate our trade is most certainly holding its own.

    Yes, of course its tough. However we have behind us the most awesome of management teams – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Let’s do it their way!

    • As I said in my post, Mike, it’s an uncomfortable question … but I think we fail in our responsibilities if we don’t ask ourselves the hard questions.

      No one here, as I read the comments, is carping at Living Oasis or running them down: on the contrary, everyone is wishing them every success.

      Wesley Owen, RIP: Living Oasis, Resurrection in progress!

    • Mike, please be assured that certainly I wish (and pray) for every success for this initiative. I think it is nothing less than a miracle that, at this point, some 40 out of 45 shops have been rescued. And I fully agree that God does, indeed, guide & direct.

      But that does not make careful thought & assessment of a business model irrelevant- ‘careful stewardship’ is one way of putting it. Since hearing of the plans to ‘lead with coffee’, I’ve certainly spent some time thinking about whether we should be doing something similar, or different to how we run the business at present. My current conclusion is that, in our context, our current model is not far from the mark. But I fully accept that our situation is different from that being faced by those re-opening LO books.

      I trust that, despite my expressed reservations (which I still hold), the LO plan prospers greatly and is richly blessed.

    • Mike,
      Can I ask you where these critics you mention are please? because I haven’t seen them on this posting.
      Given, as you well know me, if I had a criticism it would be roundly and soundly made in plain blunt english and without equivocation.

      I have concerns and reservations, yes, about the model and proposal to make coffee the leading focus – but these, as mentioned in my response, are based upon strong issues and concerns demonstrated by prior similiar models that have failed in recent time.
      Oh and also the fact that, sorry for being a bit hardline here and not radical or brave enough to do something different ;0) but I think bookshops should be bookshops first and foremost with the coffee being a secondary issue – again I cite Norwich Christian Resource Centre and the fantastic work Steve F has done there, but not at the point of saying the books are secondary.

      These are genuine concerns based on my wanting the LO businesses to work not wanton negativity and misplaced criticism. They are also based on informed opinion from years working in the Christian Retail and Booktrade sector in general and also from knowing people who have done this type of thing such as Steve F at Norwich for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.

      Sorry if i’m not being positive enough in my endorsements of the plan as it’s been outlined in everything I’ve read both from NCT and in the trade press, I pray and hope for the best for them as I have said, and want nothing but positive things for them and anyone else just starting up or who is doing the mission of the Christian Book Trade.

      Indeed as you know I have offered much prayer, petition and genuine effort to building up the christian booktrade and working on the fathers outreach in all ways I can and I will continue to do so, yes this includes praying for LO and any others who come along to take up the mantle of Christian Bookselling in our towns and cities where there really are no Christian bookshops within a decent radius of travel, and that these will be places of balances and outreach across the denominations and styles of churchmanship.

      I have to be honest and say I hadn’t heard anything about LO wanting to oppose any other Christian bookshops and agree with you that they surely have much work cut out just with the WO stores – and like you I am also sure they are fully working with a conviction to serve God’s will. As such I am convinced they would not even consider encroaching on the outreach already done by other Chrstian Bookshops/retailers or ministries for surely this is not how we are called to act as Christians and would probably not really be the Father’s will. However I could understand, as I am sure you yourself can given all the hardships and struggles that you see existing Christian bookshops & retailers are facing, why if a Christian bookshop already working in an area had heard that LO was looking at starting up within or very near their area of outreach they might be understandably concerned.
      Again let me say I am convinced that this would not be the plan or an issue because I am convinced that in the demise of WO etc we have come to realise that Kingdom Building is not such a good thing, rather it is working for the Kingdom in a mutually beneficial way that is what is needed and required of us here if we are to fulfill the Fathers plans.

      So again let me say I wish LO nothing but the best and hold them in my prayers along with all the rest of the trade and please be assured of this – I formally offer my friendship and assistance to help in anyway I can to LO, NCT or indeed anyone else out there in the trade or thinking about it as I have done here many times before and will continue to do so because I think we shouldn’t be in competition but should be working together and supporting one another as community.

      However I do hold to the right to raise questions, answer questions and put forward opinions, truthfully we have to do this for it to work anyway, it’s a form of corporate responsibility and it’s wider than just us sometimes, it’s about being part of a community. At least that’s my take on things anyway.

  6. Thanks Andrew and Mel for your qualifications. Nothing personal – there have been many reservations over the years about diversifying away from the core Christian bookshop model yet I strongly believe that in certain areas stores have to do this a) to attract non-Christians b) to cover overheads and keep the Christian presence in the high street.

    Yes Mel – I do know you better. Spade a spade (or something like that).

    I think I understand your reservations but there are quite a number of independent examples of this working on a local community level what this is doing is taking the template national. It is true to say that it doesn’t always work but what else is one to do to get the local church behind the shops apart from go out and drag them in? The LO example is probably the nearest equivalent.

    Great keep these blog comments lively!

    • I have to say, it’s really been interesting reading around here again.

      I would certainly be interested to hear what those staff of the new LO stores have to say about some of these topics. For a company leading with coffee, the pictures I have seen certainly don’t seem to show that it has been a focus yet. I would be interested to know more about this. Perhaps (as i hoped) Living Oasis does intend to keep it’s coffee and book selling businesses pretty much separate, and isn’t starting it half heartedly.

      I do, however think there is an important distinction to make between criticising the vision of Living Oasis (or any other company) and questioning or raising concerns, perhaps even criticising their business decisions.

      Indeed, I think, from what we spoke about, Ray and everyone at NCT acknowledge this distinction themselves. Their vision is simply to keep a christian presence on the high street. They are unrelenting in this pursuit, and take this goal very seriously.

      Their business model, is a different matter, and during our discussions, admitted that it is not set in stone, is subject to change, both at a per branch, and national level, and that they are not claiming their model is perfect.

      While i think we all agree with their vision, and support it whole heartedly, I do feel there is a real need to question the model, something I am sure NCT will be doing themselves as well.

      I think everyone here has been upholding the former, while at the same time questioning the latter.

      I do still have big reservations about the coffee shop model. After all, in spite of starbucks posted profits in 2009, they got there by massive cost cutting, including a net loss, in terms of locations, 30 fewer stores worldwide in September 2009 than the same month in 2008.

      I also have some concerns about the lack of a clear guarantee that current stores will have long term futures if local support can not be found. I hope that this is the case, from what i know about Ray, i believe it is his hopes, but it still seems a little odd to be pushing ahead with store re-openings, when they have not really confirmed whether or not these re-openings are permanent, or just stop-gap solutions.

      Like I said, we were thankful that Living Oasis expressed an interest in our store, and who knows what the future holds for both our companies, we certainly haven’t closed any doors permanently (at least not from our end), but for us, we really couldn’t see the coffee focus working in our store… and really didn’t want to leave our building.

      After all, there is already a “christian” coffee shop in our centre. They serve real coffee, have a large, very well used seating area, and also serve breakfast and lunch.

      They do a very good trade… and close at 3:00 PM. After that, apparently, it’s not really worth their while remaining open. Indeed, our Costa closes at 5:30, and our Starbucks, located in a retail park which stays open till 10:00 pm is closed by 6:00.

      With all my coffee experience (and i have quite a bit) i don’t think Walsall is really the ideal market for coffee… and i’m not sure a lot of the LO towns are all that different.

      I’m also not convinced that the coffee shop will generate enough customers, on it’s own, to create the turnover they are discussing.

      But, as I said, NCT are relentless in their desire to keep christianity on the high street. i have no reason to believe that if this doesn’t work, they will come up with something that will.

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