Bookshops were certainly becoming more common in Victorian England. In fact, the entire printed world exploded in the 19th century. Most of it was concentrated in London, which by 1860 housed 812 booksellers, of whom 211 were also publishers.1 Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, was home to another 120 booksellers, with 30 also publishing. In contrast, the Universal British Directory listed only 988 booksellers for the entire country at the end of the 18th century.2
At the same time, bookstores still had a long way to go. By the outbreak of the Second World War, there was four to five thousand booksellers operating within Great Britain.3 From one perspective then, bookstores were not "common" in Victorian Britain, at least not to the same extent that they would become in the 20th century.
Nonetheless, by the later 19th century bookshops had broken into the mass consumer market. Historically, books had been prohibitively costly to own. This was still true up in the early 19th century. Books were still a low volume business; booksellers did not maintain much stocks but instead treated assisting clients in acquiring specific books as a core business.3 Even subscribers to private libraries, which were touted as a cheaper format for readers, were typically from the more prosperous elements of society.4
From the middle of the century onward, however, readerships spread far and wide. While improved literacy played a part, important gains in that area were reached by the 18th century. Instead, most of the credit should go to the mass availability of low cost books.6 The Industrial Revolution was yielding dividends, and technological innovations such as better papermaking and printing techniques drastically lowered the cost of printed publications.
Newspapers were the most widespread. With reduced publishing costs after the repeal of taxation on newspapers, they became affordable to even the lower class at merely a penny or two. Likewise, specialised periodicals catering to disparate tastes and demographic groups began to emerge.4 Apart from writings targeting the likes of farmers or homemakers, family friendly works such as those of Charles Dickens were also published in periodicals. These would often be read to the whole family by a literate member.
Periodical literature supplemented but did not replace conventional books; indeed books became more accessible than ever. In the second half of the century, book prices fell precipitously thanks to increased competition between booksellers at the retail level.5 Decades of abortive attempts at price fixing finally broke down after 1852, and for the next few decades booksellers entered a period of intensive, unrestricted mutual undercutting.
The destructive price war depressed profit margins and bankrupted many merchants, but also meant late Victorian readers could expect a substantial discount on the cover price of books. By the time retailers and publishers finally cooperated to enact the price-fixing Net Book Agreement of 1899, books were being read by far more people than ever before.
(Vickers Publisher, Holywell Street. Artist unknown. Holywell Street was a notorious centre for pornographic publications before it was demolished to widen the Strand)
(Daunt Books on the Marylebone High Street. An bookstore chain that recently also began publishing. Source)
By the time of the late Victorian period, bookstores were already quite similar to contemporary ones. The intense price competition led to a diversification of a bookseller's business. Stationary, diaries, calendars, letters, art supplies, newspaper, periodicals, and greeting cards could all be found at in late 19th century bookstores.4 In other words, much like what you would expect in a modern shop.
Like books, holiday greeting cards were originally priced as luxuries. Technical advances such as lithography allowed cards to be mass produced cheaply, making them accessible to the common people by the end of the century.
1. "The Book Trade." American Literary Gazette and Publishers' Circular (1864) 1.
2. Dickinson, Harry Thomas, ed. A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
3. Levy, Hermann. The Shops of Britain: a Study of Retail Distribution. Routledge, 2013.
4. Graham, Kelley. Gone to the Shops: Shopping in Victorian England. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008.
5. Daunton, Martin. The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain. Oxford University Press, 2005.
6. Perry, Karin. "Literacy and Technology: A Historical View." Technological Tools for the Literacy Classroom (2013)