But as the internet retail behemoth Amazon has gobbled up a huge part of the market, the bricks-and-mortar booksellers have struggled to survive.
However, not only are they surviving, but in some parts they are thriving. Perhaps during the pandemic people have turned, or returned, to books to escape the real world.
At the end of 2021, the number of independent bookshops in Book Association membership grew to 1,027 shops, up from 867 in 2016.
This coming week, from today to June 25, is Independent Bookshop Week (IBW). Launched in 2006, it is a celebration of independent bookshops nationwide, and the role ‘indies’ play in their communities.
One of those new bookshops is Pigeon Books, in Albert Road, Southsea, run by husband and wife team Phil and Mel Davies. With unfortunate timing they opened in April 2020.
‘Before we opened, we thought everything would be perfect, and we know how that went,’ says Phil, 36. ‘All these grand plans and things we were going to do, eventually some of them happened, but they all had to be put on hold.’
The quirky little space is packed with character – artwork, posters, a pair of comfy chairs, a huge neon-style piece of graffiti by local street artist Soak adorns the back wall: ‘Read more books.’ And of course – the books.
They have also been doing book launches for local writers – including Loree Westron for her book Missing Words. And just last week they had Southsea-based author Lewis Hancox with his graphic novel Welcome To St Hell.
Co-owner Mel is also a published poet which has helped them plug into the local community of writers.
There is a burgeoning section of tomes by local writers and artists in the shop – including Joe Wells’ Wired Differently – 30 Neurodivergent People You Should Know.
‘We've been sending copies of Joe’s book all over the world because he's been actively recommending us,’ says Phil. ‘He came in and signed all the copies we had which was really nice.
‘The amount of people we've spoken to who've said: “I've got a book coming, let's do something,” is great, and it’s been: “Yeah, cool, get back to us when it’s coming out”. It's nice that we can actually do those things at last – especially ones we said “yes” to ages ago!’
Phil is all too aware, that pandemic aside, opening a bookshop is a risky proposition in the current climate.
‘You have to commit to the idea. Bookshops are one of those things that have always been something people say they love, but whether they love them enough for them to survive as an actual shop...
‘When we started off it was really nice to test the water as a market stall and check: Do people want this? There's nothing like what we're doing in Portsmouth.
‘For new books, you've got us, Waterstones and WH Smith’s to a lesser extent. As long as you can offer more than the likes of Amazon – you've got to have that unique selling point.
‘One of the greatest compliments we had was when we'd not long started, someone said it feels very carefully curated, and it is. Everything we have, we've made a very conscious decision to have, for one reason or another.
‘We're not forced to have the top 20 bestsellers – I will get the big mainstream names in, but when you can go into Tesco and get a brand new hardback for half the price we can sell it for, that's why we have to find something only we can offer.
‘We've got (acclaimed Portsmouth street artist) My Dog Sighs’ book – you're not going to get a £50 art book in Tesco, and having that relationship with the authors as well, is something really special.’
For Pigeon Books, anything to do with Amazon is a line they won’t cross.
‘Anything which makes Amazon money directly we say no to. It's difficult because Amazon is a very easy way for an unknown author to get published – they do provide that good service, but unfortunately the harm they do to independent booksellers, we can't look past that.
‘Waterstones, they're still a big chain, but they're at least a physical bookshop and they do stock local interest stuff, and the staff do at least seem to care about what they're doing. They're still better than Amazon who work off algorithms and squeeze as much as possible and they don't value their workers. It's not just a grudge because they sell things cheaper than us.
‘We can't compete with them on price, but we can do other things.
‘We don't have the biggest amount of stock, but we constantly remind people that we can probably have it for you by tomorrow. The suppliers we work with are brilliant. It takes the pressure off of having to stock all the titles in every series known to man!’
From the new to the old – the 89-year-old The Book Shop in High Street, Lee-on-the-Solent found itself hit by a double-whammy at the start of the year. Repayments on a bounce-back loan taken out to survive the pandemic were due and their rent was being increased. They needed to raise £30,000 to be able to buy the shop, or the owner was going to sell it. They hit their goal in a matter of weeks.
Owner Sarah Veal says: ‘Book shops are so important as they are more personal, more varied and as proven, particularly with our shop, they are the centre of communities.
‘Book shops are traditional and they care about their communities. Communities care about all their independent shops and we are lucky to be part of a high street with over 75 independent businesses in Lee-on-the-Solent.’
For Sarah IBW is about raising awareness of the indie sector, ‘especially since the pandemic, people have been very keen to shop local if they can afford to rather than shop online.’
And for the week, ‘we will have exclusive independent editions of books. Many will be signed and will be first editions. We all have promotions and a book launch, we will be giving away a free £5 gift voucher with any purchase over £20. We are also holding our annual Harry Potter event in the High Street.’
The Hayling Island Bookshop, which is run Colin and Marie Telford diversified into running literary events several years ago – they help put together the city’s annual Bookfest.
‘We survived Covid, and we're up and running,’ says Colin. ‘The events business is quite active in schools – I've just been at the Central Library where CL Taylor won the Portsmouth Book Award for her novel The Island. She's a crime writer, but she's also written a couple of YA books. The pupil judges were there and we had a little pop-up bookshop at that.
‘The event business has picked up a lot, which has been great for us.’
As for the shop, he adds: ‘We've got strong loyal support locally. It's all to play for now, we just have to keep plugging away. Obviously the economy is weighing on people's minds a lot, and it's pulling people down mentally. People are starting to tighten their belts...’