But as internet retail giant Amazon has gobbled up a huge chunk of the market, traditional booksellers have struggled to survive.
However, not only do they survive, but in some areas they thrive. Maybe during the pandemic people have turned or gone back to books to escape the real world.
By the end of 2021, the number of independent bookstores that are members of the Book Association rose to 1,027 bookstores, up from 867 in 2016.
This coming week, from today to June 25, is Independent Bookstore Week (IBW). Launched in 2006, it is a nationwide celebration of independent bookstores and the role ‘independents’ play in their communities.
One of these 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 it went,” says Phil, 36. put on hold.’
The quirky little space is full of character – artwork, posters, a pair of comfy chairs, huge neon-style graffiti by local street artist Soak adorns the back wall: “Read more books” . And of course – the books.
They also held 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 who has helped them connect with the local writing community.
There’s a thriving section of tomes by local writers and artists in the shop – including Joe Wells’ Wired Differently – 30 Neurodivergent People You Should Know.
“We sent copies of Joe’s book all over the world because he actively recommended us,” says Phil. “He came over and signed all the copies we had, which was really nice.
“The number of people we’ve talked to who’ve been like, ‘I’ve got a book coming up, let’s do something’ is awesome, and it’s been, ‘Yeah, cool, get back to us when it comes out.’ It’s nice that we can finally do these things – especially the ones we said “yes” to a long time ago!
Phil is only too aware that the pandemic aside, opening a bookstore is a risky proposition in the current climate.
“You have to commit to the idea. Bookstores are one of those things that have always been something people say they love, but if they love them enough that they survive as a proper store…
“When we started it was really nice to test the waters as a market stall and check: do people want this? There’s nothing like what we do in Portsmouth.
“For new books you have us, Waterstones and WH Smith’s to a lesser extent. As long as you can offer more than the likes of Amazon, you need to have that unique selling point.
“One of the biggest compliments we’ve had is that we haven’t started in a long time, someone said it looked very neatly organized, and it is. All we have , we made a very conscious decision to have it, for one reason or another.
“We don’t have to have the top 20 bestsellers – I’ll bring in the big mainstream names, but when you can walk into Tesco and get a brand new hardback book for half the price we can sell it for, that’s why we have to find something that only we can offer.
“We have (acclaimed Portsmouth street artist) the book My Dog Sighs – you won’t get a £50 art book at Tesco, and also having this relationship with the authors is something really special.
For Pigeon Books, anything about Amazon is a line they won’t cross.
“Anything that makes money for Amazon directly, we say no.” It’s hard because Amazon is a very easy way for an unknown author to get published – they provide that good service, but unfortunately the harm they do to independent booksellers we can’t look past.
“Waterstones is still a big chain, but it’s at least a physical bookstore and they stock local stuff, and the staff seem to at least care about what they’re doing. They are still better than Amazon who work on algorithms and squeeze as much as possible and they don’t appreciate their employees. 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 something else.
“We don’t have the largest amount of stock, but we’re constantly reminding people that we can probably have it for you by tomorrow.” The suppliers we work with are awesome. This relieves the pressure of having to stock every title from every series known to man!
From new to old – The 89-year-old Book Shop in High Street, Lee-on-the-Solent found itself hit with a double whammy earlier this year. Repayments on a bounce loan taken out to survive the pandemic were due and their rent was rising. They needed to raise £30,000 to be able to buy the store or else the owner was going to sell it. They reached their goal in a few weeks.
Owner Sarah Veal says, “Bookstores are so important because they are more personal, more varied and, as has been proven, especially with our store, they are the hub of communities.
“Bookstores are traditional and they care about their communities. Communities care about all their independent shops and we are fortunate to be part of a high street with over 75 independent businesses in Lee-on-the-Solent.
For Sarah IBW, it’s about raising awareness for the independent sector, “especially since the pandemic, people are very keen to buy locally if they can afford it rather than buying 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’ll be giving away a free £5 gift voucher with any purchase over £20. We also hold our annual Harry Potter event in the High Street.
Hayling Island Bookstore, run by Colin and Marie Telford, branched out into running literary events several years ago – they helped organize the town’s annual book party.
“We survived Covid, and we’re up and running,” says Colin. “The events sector is very active in schools – I have just been at the Central Library where CL Taylor won the Portsmouth Book Award for his novel The Island. She’s a crime novelist, but she’s also written a few books for young adults. The student judges were there and we had a small pop-up bookstore.
“The events industry has picked up a lot, which has been great for us.”
As for the store, he adds: “We have strong loyal support locally. It’s all to play for now, we just have to keep plugging in. Obviously, the economy weighs heavily on people’s minds and drags them down mentally. People are starting to tighten their belts…’