Romance Bookstores Are Booming, Dishing ‘All the Hot Stuff You Can Imagine’

Romance Bookstores Are Booming, Dishing ‘All the Hot Stuff You Can Imagine’

Last summer, when Mae Tingstrom had the idea to open a romance bookstore in Ventura, Calif., the first thing she did was search online to see whether there was already one in her region. She found The Ripped Bodice — a bookstore in Culver City that was doing so well, it was expanding to a second location in Brooklyn.

“That was intimidating,” she said.

If their success was daunting, it also suggested that there might be room for another romance store. So this February, she opened Smitten on a busy strip of Main Street, about 60 miles from her competitor. In the months since, Smitten has become a vibrant hub for romance readers, with author signings, tarot readings, book clubs and trivia and craft nights.

Customers sometimes approach her with highly specific requests. “Someone came in and was like, ‘I like fantasy, I want it to be queer, I want it to have representation from a different culture and I want it to be as smutty as possible,’” Tingstrom said.

And they come in often. “I have regulars who come a couple of times a week,” Tingstrom said. “I’m like, didn’t you just buy two books the other day?”

Once a niche that independent booksellers largely ignored, romance is now the hottest thing in the book world. It is, by far, the top-selling fiction genre, and its success is reshaping not only the publishing industry, but the retail landscape as well.

Over the last two years, the country went from having two dedicated romance bookstores — The Ripped Bodice and Love’s Sweet Arrow, in Chicago — to a national network of more than 20. Among them: Tropes & Trifles in Minneapolis, Grump and Sunshine in Belfast, Maine, Beauty and the Book in Anchorage, Lovebound Library in Salt Lake City and Blush Bookstore in Wichita, Kan.

More are on the way, including Kiss & Tale in Collingswood, N.J.; The New Romantics in Orlando, Fla.; and Grand Gesture Books in Portland, Ore., an online romance store that’s moving into a storefront.

The bookstores are largely owned and operated by women. And women make up the majority of the readers who have sent romance sales soaring — from 18 million print copies sold in 2020 to more than 39 million in 2023, according to Circana BookScan.

“There’s been a cultural shift around the way that we think and talk about media that has been primarily written by, and directed toward, women,” said Becca Title, a former immigration defense lawyer and the owner of Meet Cute, a romance bookstore in San Diego. “More people are realizing not only that romance sells and that it has commercial value, but that it has artistic value and entertainment value.”

Romance writers like Sarah J. Maas, Emily Henry, Colleen Hoover and Rebecca Yarros dominate the best-seller lists: Six of the top 10 best-selling fiction authors in the United States so far this year are romance writers. Publishers are expanding their romance lists, wooing self-published romance authors with large advances and adding new imprints.

The shift is huge from the days when romance was looked down upon as frothy and unserious “chick-lit,” or as smut. Even just a few years ago, many independent bookstores carried only a small selection of romance novels, often relegated to a shelf in the back of the store.

Leah Koch, a co-owner of The Ripped Bodice — which was the first romance bookstore to open in the United States, in 2016 — remembers searching in vain for romance novels in bookstores as a teenager. The feeling of being overlooked was part of what motivated Koch and her sister, Bea Hodges-Koch, to open their stores.

“Many people who work in publishing and at independent bookstores felt like romance wasn’t worth their time,” Koch said. “I’m like, you could have been making money, but that’s fine, I’ll make the money.”

Romance sales began to soar during the pandemic, as people rediscovered reading and many turned to romance fiction as an escape (one rule of the genre is that the stories almost always end with an H.E.A. — Happily Ever After). The arrival of BookTok also helped drive the surge, as TikTok influencers drew in younger readers with videos championing their favorite authors.

Now, romance novels are featured prominently at the front of Target and Barnes & Noble. Romance readers who once mainly bought e-books — they are cheaper and easier to access, and perhaps easier to conceal — now display their romance novels on bookshelves like trophies.

The rapid rise of romance bookstores has given the genre’s fans a new locus — a welcoming place to shop and swoon over their favorite books with unabashed enthusiasm.

“You can go into a romance store, and the bookseller is like, ‘Do you like spice? Do you like historical?’” said Jane Nutter, a communications and marketing manager at Kensington, a romance publisher. “They’re going to know what you want, and they’re not going to judge you for it.”

Many of these stores have a flirty, flamboyantly feminine aesthetic: heavy on pink, accented with heart and floral motifs, decked out with signs and merchandise that play on familiar romance tropes — enemies to lovers, forced proximity, forbidden love, secret identity. They carry every conceivable romance sub genre: historical, L.G.B.T.Q., YA, supernatural and romantasy, and sports-themed. Many also stock self-published novels, which mainstream booksellers typically don’t carry.

Melissa Saavedra, the owner of Steamy Lit, a romance bookstore in Deerfield Beach, Fla., discovered romance a little over a decade ago, when she was serving in the U.S. Navy as a petty officer. Her gateway was E.L. James’s erotica series “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which she read on her tablet when she was in her bunk on the U.S.S. America, an amphibious assault ship.

“I started working on my ‘I’m not reading a sex scene in public’ face then,” Saavedra recalled. “Now, you can’t even tell.”

After leaving the Navy in 2017, she worked as a travel agent for sports teams. When work was slow during the pandemic, she came up with the idea for The Steam Box — a quarterly subscription box of romance novels paired with vibrators. It quickly took off.

The Steam Box was also a way to erode the lingering stigma surrounding erotic romance and women’s sexual pleasure. “We still have to fight tooth and nail for people to respect the genre,” she said.

Saavedra, who was born in Lima, Peru, and moved to South Florida when she was 10, also made it her mission to promote romance authors from diverse backgrounds.

She decided to open a bookstore when she realized that her community in Deerfield Beach was a romance book desert — particularly when it came to diverse romance. At Steamy Lit’s opening weekend in February, 500 people showed up, and the store sold 900 books. Since then, the store has had book signings with more than 30 writers, including Kennedy Ryan, Ali Hazelwood and Abby Jimenez, who held an event there in May that featured baby goats in pajamas, in an adorable allusion to a baby goat scene from her novel “Part of Your World.”

On a sunny Sunday afternoon this spring, Steamy Lit was full of readers browsing, sipping Prosecco and getting books signed by A.H. Cunningham, a romance writer promoting her new novel, “Out of Office.”

“These are the kinds of spaces we need,” said Cunningham as raucous conversations in English and Spanish ricocheted around the room.

Customers snapped photos in front of the store’s pink neon signs (one says “More Amor Por Favor”). Others browsed the shop’s selection of Spanish translations, a table of tear-jerkers collected under the heading “In My Crying Era” and bookshelves labeled “Morally Gray” and “Dark Romance.”

“These shelves never stay full,” Saavedra said, referring to the dark romance.

Rosen Fulmore, a frequent shopper at Steamy Lit, carried a stack of several worn novels for Cunningham to sign.

“I hope you don’t mind the water damage,” she said to Cunningham.

“I love that they’re well loved,” Cunningham replied.

Fulmore heard about the store when Ryan, one of her favorite authors, posted on social media that she would be having an event there, and she has since become a regular customer. “It’s got all the hot stuff you can imagine in a one-stop shop,” she said.

Another customer, Angela Thayer, who works at the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, said she usually comes by every two weeks, when she gets her paycheck. That Sunday, she brought her daughter, Ashley Watkins, who was excited to see so many romance novels by authors of color. “Seeing books with people who look like me in romance situations is really nice,” Watkins said.

Steamy Lit also stocks some general fiction and nonfiction for the rare customer who doesn’t like romance, on a bookshelf labeled, “I Got Dragged Here.” It’s tucked away in a discreet spot, at the back of the store.

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