Sexily ever after: how romance bookstores took over America

From The Guardian:

Five years ago, there was just one. Now bookshops exclusively stocking romance novels are everywhere – aiming to ‘undo generations of shame’

When Jonlyn Scrogham decided to open a romance novel bookstore last year in Louisville, Kentucky, the 37-year-old had modest expectations. The space she rented was tiny; her annual sales projections were small, too.

Though she had been an avid romance reader for decades, she wasn’t sure how many others shared her excitement. She worried that people would think the concept was silly, or that not many people would visit.

But not long after A Novel Romance opened in July, she said, customers were showing up from Tennessee and Virginia, saying they had traveled three or four hours just to visit. Within two months, Scrogham was already halfway to what she had projected would be her annual sales total. And all of this happened without her spending “a single dollar” on marketing.

“It’s all been driven by Instagram, TikTok, word of mouth and Facebook,” she said. “People coming in, and the romance community talking to each other.”

Scrogham is part of a quiet but rapidly growing trend. At least eight other dedicated romance novel bookstores opened across the US in 2023, in cities from Wichita, Kansas, to Belfast, Maine. At least three more have opened so far in 2024, in Florida and in Utah, with another planned in Portland, Oregon.

“People are driving from states away – people who are seeing us online and want to come,” said Jaclyn Wooten, the founder of Blush Bookstore in Kansas. An employee said that one customer described flying in from Baltimore on a private jet. “All the businesses around us are like, ‘What is going on over there? What are they doing?’”

As a genre, romance is defined by its focus on a central love story, and by its promise of a “happily ever after” for its main characters – or at least, in more contemporary novels, a “happy for now”. Romance connoisseurs often refer to the amount of sex in the novels as a book’s “spice level”, which from ranges from quite mild to very spicy indeed.

Six years ago, there was only one romance bookstore in the US: the Ripped Bodice, in Los Angeles, named after the “bodice ripper” historical romances of the 80s and 90s. But as romance publishing has boomed, with US print book sales increasing 117% over the past three years, romance fans are opening up more brick and mortar stores to meet the demand.

Annual print sales of romance novels more than doubled in the past three years, from 18m in 2020 to 36m in 2023, driven in part by BookTok, according to Circana, a consumer analytics firm.

Over the same time, the number of romance-focused bookstores in the US grew from just two to at least 15, with a handful more in Canada and Australia. Many of them have names that play on favorite romance tropes, like Grump and Sunshine, Meet Cute and Slow Burn Books. Their decor – often heavy on the pink – is playful and celebratory, designed as a backdrop for TikTok and Instagram content.

The stores stock a wide variety of popular romance genres, from the Regency-era love stories that inspired Bridgerton, to contemporary novels about hot hockey players, to “romantasy” series like A Court of Thorns and Roses, to a wide range of LGBTQ+ romances. Despite book bans in some US states, 1m LGBTQ+ romance novels were sold between May 2022 and May 2023, a 40% increase compared with the year before, according to Circana.

When the sisters Leah Koch and Bea Hodges-Koch began raising money for the Ripped Bodice in 2015, the idea of a romance-only bookstore had plenty of doubters. Some family members and friends thought the idea was too “niche” to succeed, Leah Koch said. A few older romance novelists criticized the store’s cheeky name, arguing they were portraying the genre in a bad light. Some critics suggested a bookstore focused on sexy romance novels was an affront to religious values.

But the idea also struck a chord among romance fans: the sisters raised more than $90,000 from supporters on Kickstarter to make the Ripped Bodice a reality.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

3 thoughts on “Sexily ever after: how romance bookstores took over America”

  1. More directly related to the topic of the OP, out of all the genres to start a specialty bookstore for, romance makes the most sense. Its readers are voracious and dedicated, so you have a good customer base, and there are so many clearly-defined subgenres that splitting such a store up into different sections for the various subgenres would be relatively easy.

  2. Despite book bans in some US states,

    The Guardian, as per usual, seems to be slightly confused. The “book bans” do not involve prohibiting the sale of books. At their most restrictive, they involve government-owned libraries not being allowed to shelve certain books.

    If you want to argue that this is still problematic, I’ll be sympathetic, but private booksellers are not being touched by these laws, unlike what The Guardian implies here.

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