Did you ever have a person wearing a dress lean over to you conspiratorially and whisper: it has pockets! This is how gleefully readers share the names of bookstores that carry romance. Why? Because we, voracious readers who often read several books a week, are used to being treated with disdain or ignored entirely by local indie booksellers. Readers who get up the gumption to ask if there’s a romance section have been met with a familiar, frosty response, “We’re not that type of bookstore.”
It’s often said that romance is a “billion dollar industry,” and in 2017 more than 20 million romances novels were sold. Romance Writers of America notes that romance novels were a third of all fiction sales in 2015. So when bookstores say they’re “not that kind” of store, romance readers almost always default to the same bitter joke: What kind of bookstore is that, exactly? The kind that doesn’t like money?
You can see this response happening in real time when a well-meaning indie bookseller takes to social media to chastise people for shopping at Amazon. Romance readers often don’t have a choice. Everything is in stock at Amazon, not just 50 Shades of Grey and Nicholas Sparks (who doesn’t even write romance, thank you very much.) Huge swaths of the country are not close to a local indie bookstore, with WalMart or Target being their only book-buying options. But most importantly, the impartial Amazon shopping cart icon never sneers at your books when checking out.
Last November, I vented about this problem in a Twitter thread, and the result was a crowd-sourced map of romance-friendly indie bookstores. There’s a low bar to be on the map— all a store needs to qualify is a separate, freestanding romance section or shelf. Even so, there are only about 275 indie or used bookstores on the map—out of approximately 2,300 independent bookstores in the country, according to NPR.
However, an activist group of booksellers have been changing not only their local stores, but also the entire indie landscape. Billie Bloebaum is a bookseller at Third Street Books in Portland, Oregon, and she is spearheading the first Bookstore Romance Day this Saturday, August 17. Bloebaum is part of a Facebook group for independent booksellers. They knew that romance authors and readers weren’t receiving enough vocal support from the bookselling community, and she threw out the idea of having a romance day. The group’s original goal was to have 50 stores participate, but over 150 have signed up.
In other words, romance readers might be pleased to find that times are changing at many indie bookstores. Bloebaum thinks that the change in how indie bookstores feel about romance is being led by booksellers, many of whom “believe—and rightly so—that all reading is valuable and legitimate,” she says. “They’re also a generation who had the benefit of blogs and social media to connect them to the vibrant and vocal community that is Romancelandia.”
57th Street Books is one of the only indies in the city of Chicago that stocks romance. Two years ago, they started with a single romance shelf and have since expanded to two bookcases. Manager Clancey D’Isa explains, “For us, it’s a mission. We have these books, not only because they reflect the community, but also because it’s important to represent the myriad ways in which we read.” She says their commitment to genre fiction and children’s books “affirms our place as a community bookstore. We want to be a store where anyone feels invited to come in and read.”
Both D’Isa and Bloebaum encourage romance readers to keep talking to their local indies about romance. Bloebaum advises, “Start by special-ordering and pre-ordering the books you want. Once an indie sees that they have a customer for the genre, they’re more likely to start bringing more. And talk to booksellers. We love to talk about books... if you get dismissed or looked down on, call it out. Maybe not publicly, but send an email to the owner or manager.”
D’Isa encourages readers to feel confident when approaching their local store, “Independent bookstores recognize the need to connect to the community. It’s scary to ask, but we only exist because of the public.” But as a bookseller, she knows the underlying problem isn’t what is on the shelves. She says, “The ask is to take romance readers seriously. They live here, they read this, and they deserve to see themselves in our space.”
Romance correspondent Jennifer Prokop co-hosts the podcast Fated Mates. Follow her on Twitter @JenReadsRomance.