News that Waterstones is finally about to break even, after years in the commercial tundra, is the best Christmas present the book world could hope for, a bellwether of a brighter future.

Under the direction of James Daunt, the beleaguered chain store has struggled in the past three years, despite the fanfare with which he was appointed.

With the business now on the cusp of success - or at least solvency - Daunt admits that conditions during his tenure have occasionally been "horrendous". Waterstones, like every other bookshop in the country, has struggled against online booksellers, the rise of the e-book and the declining place of reading in popular culture. Scything staff cuts were only the most visible of the store's attempts to stop the gangrene spreading. So too the proliferation of stationery and gifts in prime locations on the shop floor, where previously there had been books.

In a recent interview Daunt sounded cautiously optimistic, as well he might. Cautious, because booksellers are probably working harder today than at any time on record to tempt readers; and optimistic because he, and many independent booksellers, do finally seem to be witnessing the first tentative appearance of those green shoots George Osborne so prematurely spoke of years ago. In the case of bookshops, however, their sight heralds not merely the chance of financial survival but something rather more profound.

It is Daunt's belief - shared by many - that the arrival of the e-book, which now accounts for about 30% of the market, has had the unexpected effect of making readers fonder of the physical book. For a while it seemed that paperback sales were the beneficiaries of the return to retro reading, but now, according to Daunt, the hardback is enjoying a revival that nobody could have predicted even a couple of years ago.

But there's more. It would seem that the very act of reading books is enjoying something of a renaissance. Daunt is emphatic on this point. "Do not underestimate the pleasures of reading. The satisfactions of the book, in the age of social media and proliferating cultural choices, are very singular."

A recent visit to one of Scotland's most delectable bookshops, Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells, near Melrose, seemed to endorse his belief. It was a frosty midweek morning in early December, and the place was quietly busy. Staff had just gone onto their seasonal seven-day rota, and there was an air of excitement, lightly seasoned with stress. But anyone who doesn't like the slog and long hours at Christmas shouldn't be in bookselling, is owner Rosamund de la Hey's dictum, understandably given how much they all rely on this bountiful period to fill the coffers.

The floor and windows of de la Hey's shop were enticingly decorated, filled with new title displays, a table displaying a suggested Top 10 books for Christmas (11 actually), and the cafe till was ringing as merrily as the one beside the books and soft toys, ornaments and mugs. As in Waterstones, as in every bookshop that hopes to weather these cut-throat times, it is no longer enough just to sell books. A glance at Mainstreet Trading's packed calendar of author events shows another element that is also essential for promoting books. It is known as hand-selling, rather in the old-fashioned way of door to door salesmen.

And thanks to inventive, hard-working businesses such as this, readers are increasingly trusting their local bookshops. The selection of titles by a canny seller, along with recommendations, author sessions, book groups and suchlike, are bringing bookworms back, again and again. As the price of a coffee or a cinema ticket soars, a hardback suddenly does not seem expensive. Paperbacks, meanwhile, are astonishingly good value for the hours of pleasure they offer.

Christmas has been the high point of the book trade year since Queen Victoria first put up her decorated tree. In her day, books quickly became the most popular of Christmas gifts. In some households - mentioning no names - that is still the case of course. Chances are, if you're reading this, you are one of those who has helped produce those encouraging green shoots. Let's raise a toast, in the hope of seeing them flower.