It will go down as the worst year on record for British retailers, but 2019 may also have witnessed a new chapter in one of the high street’s Cinderella stories.
Independent booksellers were among the first victims of the so-called dot com boom of the 1990s – their numbers halving as readers moved online to the vast warehouses of Amazon.
However, after confirmation of a third successive year of growth, there was growing evidence last night that the tide of public opinion was turning.
“People have seen what’s happening to their local high streets and they don’t like it,” said Kevin Duffy, who runs Bluemoose Books, an independent publisher in Hebden Bridge.
His firm, whose turnover breached the £100,000 barrier for the first time last year, relies on sales from small bookshops, where his titles do not have to compete with the wholesale discounts offered by corporate publishing houses.
“Without independent bookshops we wouldn’t be where we are today, and that goes for a lot of independent publishers,” he said.
“There’s a kind of bush telegraph among booksellers. They tell each other when they’re selling a lot of a particular title and then book clubs pick it up.”
There were 890 small shops under the umbrella of the Booksellers’ Association at the end of the year – around 1,000 less than in 1995 but 23 more than 2016, the lowest point on the curve. The association reported yesterday that Christmas trading was up at two-thirds of them, despite figures from the rest of the high street pointing to the worst seasonal performance since monitoring began in 1995.
Meryl Halls, the association’s managing director, said the bookshop figures were “heartening”, although she cautioned that they should be seen in the context of continued online competition and “unequal” business rates.
“No high street can survive solely on bookshops – all retailers need to be supported and championed for the retail landscape to thrive,” she said.
At the Book Corner, which set up shop in Halifax’s Piece Hall when it reopened in 2018, Christmas sales were 10 per cent up on the previous year, said its manager, Sarah Shaw.
“This is our third year of trading and each year has been significantly better than the last.”
Read, owned by teachers James and Louise Ashmore, opposite Holmfirth Market, was one of two small bookshops to open in Yorkshire last year. Mrs Ashmore said: “It was our first Christmas so we had nothing to compare it to, and we really didn’t know what to expect, but it was a lot busier than normal.
“It just feels that there is a movement towards people thinking that a book is a good gift. It’s something that lasts.
“We feel really lucky to be in Holmfirth – it’s the right place at the right time.
“People are making that conscious decision to shop locally rather than online.”
In the heart of the Wolds, the only other bookshop to have opened in Yorkshire last year also reported brisk Christmas trading.
“It exceeded expectations. We opened between nine and one on Christmas Eve and there was a steady stream of people. We sold 154 books,” said Darren Epworth, who opened The Little Book Emporium, just off Driffield’s market place, last summer with his wife, Donna.
“People appreciate the personal service,” he said. “It’s better than looking at a picture on the internet.”