I’m spending several months traveling around the United States this year, and one of the best things about it is the chance to visit independent bookstores. I love seeing the different collections stores have, the local touches they include in their space, and the way they fit as a part of a community.
But seeing all of these stores has also been incredibly frustrating at times. Many of the bookstores I’ve visited don’t have a romance section, and some of them don’t even carry romance titles. Mysteries are everywhere, fantasy occupies lots of shelf space, and if you’re looking for YA or middle grade titles, indie bookstores across the U.S. are here for you. But romance lovers are often out of luck.
It’s been difficult for me to understand why, so every time I find a bookstore without a romance section, I ask about it. The conversation has almost always gone something like this:
Me: Excuse me, I’m having trouble finding your romance section. Do you have one?
Bookstore employee who had the misfortune to be behind the counter that day: Oh, no, actually we don’t have a romance section. Is there a particular title I can order for you?
Me: No, thank you, I was just going to browse for a new read. But can I ask you, since I can’t help but notice that you have a thriller/SFF/true crime/new release young adult paranormal section, why is it that you’ve made space for all of those other genres, but not romance?
Employee: Uh, you know, I think maybe it’s just not really something our customers read.
Me: Really? That’s odd, since both the Books-A-Million across the river and the library down the street have at least a dozen shelves full of genre romance.
Me: So, somebody in this city is reading romance. And a different store is making money off of it.
Employee: Hmmm. Well, you know we also don’t carry very many mass market paperbacks.
At this point, I usually take pity on and respond with a polite but unimpressed “ah,” though I occasionally point out that the store has managed to find space for MMPs by James Patterson, Stephen King, Lee Child, and their ilk. Once, when I was feeling particularly irritated by the conversation, I told the employee that they should feel free to contact me if they wanted a list of bestselling romance titles available in trade paperback. (You may be shocked to learn that no one from that store ever contacted me.)
Believe it or not, I don’t actually press the issue just to pester the generally very nice employees of indie bookstores. I do it in part because I’m genuinely confused by the decision—romance is one of the bestselling genres, after all—and also because I think there’s a slim chance that someone asking the question might push the people making decisions about what’s in stock and highlighted at these stores to think more about why they’re disregarding romance.
The displays and titles in almost all of the indie bookstores I visited showed that, in many ways, they are progressive, inclusive places. But I would argue that a store can’t be fully inclusive if they neglect the one genre in which writers are overwhelmingly non-male. Like much of the publishing industry, romance has a very real inclusion problem of its own, but it’s still the genre in which you’re most likely to find stories that end happily for characters of all genders, races, sexualities, abilities, cultures, and body types. I ask about romance sections at indie bookstores because—whether the message is intentional or not—it says something to me when a store is happy to hang a sign on genres like “Thriller” or “Suspense,” which regularly feature violent crimes against women, but that same store can’t be troubled to spotlight books in which women and nonbinary characters end up happy (not to mention alive).
For what it’s worth, I believe the staff at bookstores when they tell me no one is asking about romance titles. I’m very comfortable in my identity as a reader, and even I find it a little intimidating to ask about the romance collection (or lack thereof). The intentional exclusion of romance suggests that a judgement has already been made about romance readers, and it can be uncomfortable to pose a question knowing that there’s a good chance the person answering it doesn’t think much of the books you choose to read—or, by association, of you as a reader.
It’s worth noting that are a lot of great indie bookstores that are already highlighting romance and showing how it can be done. Places like Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho; A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wisconsin; Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.; and all of the many bookstores that participated in Bookstore Romance Day are serving all readers in a more inclusive way by including a romance section.
And I do believe that others want to do the same thing and might just be uncertain about where to start. Running a bookstore is, undoubtedly, challenging and complicated. There are lots of considerations, and booksellers who don’t have the time to develop any expertise in the romance genre may be intimidated by the idea of curating a romance section.
Good news: that’s where we can help. Below are 13 romance titles bookstores can use to start—or supplement—their romance collections. (Since trade paperbacks seem more appealing to some booksellers, many of these titles are available in that format.)
Indie booksellers would be doing their readers a service by at least giving some of these books (or others if they prefer) a try. People deserve to know that happy endings exist for all kinds of people. Besides, if Wisconsin’s Fair Isle Books and Gifts—a shop on an island with a population of fewer than 1,000 people that can only be accessed BY FERRY—can find space and enthusiasm for a romance section, maybe it’s time for other shops to clear a few shelves.