Back to the good old days—five years ago—bookstores were the happening place for readers, even romance readers. Our favorite authors were making the rounds and most large population centers would boast of at least one best-selling list author to show up for a signing. The romance section of the bookstore consisted of a section with many, many bays dedicated to all types of romance novels of every size imaginable: hardcover to trade to mass market, where the bounty usually awaited the enthusiastic reader.

So what’s happened?

Fast forward to current time, 2013. Box stores are closing, or downsizing and trying out new concepts, which is marketing speak for “let’s see what people are buying.” And it’s a throwback to the dark ages of box stores, when the romance and genre-friendly Waldenbooks and B. Dalton’s flourished with their robust romance sections, while the box stores reserved their space for table top books, coffee shops and literary must-reads. Now the romance section is shriveling in size and location with each visit.

Because I am very active in my area’s book clubs, I visit bookstores more often than anyone I know, except for the people who actually work in one. So the changes are very pronounced and saddening. Even more saddening is the "likeness" of the selections. This week, with more time than usual to spare, I wandered the romance section to check out books I may have missed. Yes, even though I get to see hundreds of books per week come through the Fresh Fiction mail room, as a reading addict I’m always looking for something I could have missed. Or the next best thing to read. So I was a little excited to stroll the aisles and consider something new. I’m sure most readers can remember the feeling—looking at book covers, picking up a prospective book, reading the back copy, skimming the first couple of pages. If it was engaging, then adding the book to the buy pile tucked under one arm. Ah the excitement of discovery!

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So with growing dismay I wandered the romance section at our flagship Barnes & Noble. I should point out our smaller romance section now shares a bay with travel guides. Not a normal pairing, but slightly charming (if not confusing) to this reader. The first bay was all the new releases; all trade size books; and all the same hues. Believe it or not, they’re colors very reminiscent of my Amish country childhood. The colors were dark but not rich. Very boring grays, blacks, dark reds. And usually with one “THING” on the cover: an apple, cufflinks, part of a bed, handcuffs, a rose. You get the picture. The covers yelled to me: It’s either Young Adult (or new adult) or erotica. Take your pick. It’s limited but hey, this is what you want. Buy it. And be bored.

Yes, covers talk to me. It’s sad but true. And they don’t always talk in ways publishers hope they will.

But being addicted to reading, I don’t go a day without reading some part of a book and I had to buy more than a cup of coffee. But what? I left the new fiction and headed to my favorite section: mass market release—my savior because if you buy lots of books, this section holds all the value and quantity of great reads. Not being plagued with disposable income, I still weigh the price versus the return. And with mass market, I can get two books to read for the price of one trade or four for the price of one hardcover which will come out in paperback shortly. Yes, this is my reasoning. So, I browsed and shopped. And found a few changes:

  1. Paranormal romance is still very popular and plentiful.
  2. Nora Roberts has shrunk to just two shelves, the same as Johanna Lindsey. I think this represents the last 30 years of romance books.
  3. Mass market romances have more color on their covers and it’s a brighter, more feminine section.
  4. Category romances have very limited space, BUT lots of signage pushing you to download books on your Nook.

But never say I don’t persevere. I did and I bought. The first book that called out to me was, believe it or not, a trade paperback which is getting lots of steam online and in our book clubs this month: Beautiful Bastard. If you like the old boss and secretary or doctor and nurse romances and you want to take your reading up a notch in the steam factor (maybe I should say crank it up withSleepwalker Robards a big dose of hot sauce), then Beautiful Bastard will do it. No “woo woo,” just straight interplay between two strong-willed characters fighting base instincts and oh my,  getting it on everywhere imaginable (fans required along with an iced beverage). And it’s got a guy with a really bad fetish: He’s a collector. And it’s expensive. There, I’ve teased you enough. Pick it up or download it. Suggest it as a book club selection. It will be a film in a few years. Enjoy!

And because I’m a sucker for a good thrill ride, I also picked up a Karen Robards I must have missed. Sleepwalker includes two of my favorite character types: the female cop and the criminal opponent.  Natural opponents with one thing in common: staying alive by depending on each other. And falling in love. 

So what do you find in your local bookstore? Or do you shop primarily online or in a nontraditional store such as a Wal-Mart, Target or grocery store? I’m always curious to see where my fellow readers find their books. Because as I said, I need to be sure I’m not missing ANYTHING!

Sara Reyes is the founder and partner at FreshFiction.com a popular fiction web site for today's reader with new titles, contests, over 50,000 genre fiction author profiles with backlists, and permanently archived reviews, plus all the industry buzz. Fresh Fiction has a biweekly segment (Buy the Book) on WFAA Channel 8 Good Morning Texas to talk about new books not to miss. Believing face-to-face interaction is as important as virtual communities, Fresh Fiction sponsors an annual readers conference, monthly literary events, and book clubs. Follow Sara at @FreshFiction on Twitter or Facebook.com/FreshFiction.