IT’S been another miserable year for the high street, with big names like HMV, Poundworld, Maplin and Toys R Us all entering administration and branch closures and profit warnings becoming the norm.

But look elsewhere and there are glimmers of hope, not least with the news that after more than 20 years of decline, the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland has grown for the second year in a row.

The Booksellers Association (BA), which represents independent, chain and non-traditional booksellers, released the figures as part of its annual membership survey, which revealed the number of independent bookshops in BA membership in 2018 grew to 883 shops, up from 868 in 2017, with new independent bookshops such as Vinyl Fiction in Manchester and Eaves and Lord Books in Powys, helping to boost the numbers.

The BA also conducted a Christmas Trading Survey, which reinforced anecdotal feedback of strong bookshop performances pre and post-Christmas, with 73 per cent of booksellers reporting that their Christmas 2018 sales were up on 2017.

“We have noticed that people have been coming back to us over the last 18 months and away from the internet,” says Caroline Johnson, who has run The Bookshop in Mold on the town’s high street since 1981.

“They like the personal service they get in a high street book shop, they like the selection of books we have and they like that they can order things and get them the next day, which is often quicker than you can get them online.”

The BA also suggested that 63.5 per cent of booksellers reported that customer numbers rose this Christmas compared with 2017 and Caroline agrees that the numbers popping into the shop over the festive period matches with the association’s optimism.

“It started slowly but then we went on to have our best December in years,” she says.

“The range of stock that is out at the moment is very much ‘book shop stock’ rather than ‘supermarket stock’ and that is more what our customers like, which has helped us have a very good Christmas.”

Many of the new book shops are run by enthusiasts who have had to be original and innovative in their thinking in order to compete with the cheaper online marker personified by Amazon.

“In this shop we concentrate more on travel, history and biographies,” says Caroline, who also began stocking art supplies after the town’s arts and craft supplier Paperway closed its doors 10 years ago.

“What we have noticed this year is that the sales of fiction have increased and I think people are coming away from the e-readers.

“The people of Mold have always supported us which is why we’ve kept going, even through the dark days.

“We’ve always had our local core of established book buyers and our customers who have been coming to us since they were children and are now bringing their own children.”

Caroline believes the shop is lucky to be on Mold’s high street, which has always had a tradition of supporting independent traders and businesses.

“Independent retailers have always invested in the town and provided we can keep the units for them and we can provide decent units for decent rates, I think Mold will carry on thriving,” she says. “Business rates always used to be a problem for us but we are now eligible for relief, which is a big help for many independents in the town.

“We have always had to adapt and we are constantly reassessing our stock and the type of books that we stock.

“We did go into the arts and craft business when the other shop closed down and that has been very good for us, but we also dabbled with stationary and that wasn’t so good, so we’ve dropped that in favour of having more space for books.

“There is always the worry about what is going to happen with Brexit but we are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping we can weather the storm.”

Interestingly, Caroline thinks the current instability at Downing Street has benefitted some genres which the shop stocks.

“It’s a bit early in the year to say what is going to be the trend but because of Brexit there’s been a resurgence in sales of political books.

“There’s even quite a lot of fiction coming out with Brexit as a backdrop and basing the story on what people think of it.

“If you get two or three big sellers the supermarkets jump on the back of them but we had a wide range of quality fiction with Kate Atkinson and Pat Barker both doing well and poetry from John Cooper Clarke and Carol Anne Duffy also proving popular.

“They’re both good book shop authors who the supermarkets don’t stock and we’ve been able to capitalise on that.”

While heralding the figures as a timely shot in the arm for the industry, the BA were still keen to remind the Government that the high street remains at risk from the likes of retail giants Amazon.

Meryl Halls, managing director at the BA, added: “It is extremely encouraging to see independent bookshops succeeding in 2018, demonstrating the creativity and entrepreneurship of booksellers in the face of difficult challenges.

“We are delighted for - and proud of - our incredibly hard-working booksellers. We do, though, also need to consider these figures in a wider context.

“Retailers generally are facing an increasingly challenging landscape across the UK and Ireland, and we all need the retail landscape to be strong.

“Bookshops (especially our larger members) continue to experience unequal business rates, and struggle alongside wider retail with unfair competition from online retailers, as well as post-Brexit uncertainty.

“In light of this, we ask the Government to take the steps needed to protect the future of bookshops and their high streets, considering the concerns of retailers and booksellers so they can both flourish.”