In Bloomington, Indiana, we are spoiled with an enormous annual used book fair. It happened in mid-October, with proceeds benefiting a local food bank. I usually go alone because few people have as much patience for poring over boxes of books in barns at the county fairgrounds as I do. With the fair cancelled in 2020, I really hoped this year’s would be a good one. And lo, it was.
I’ve written before about developing a collecting strategy, something I recommend contemplating before going to such a big fair. My primary goal at this fair is finding paperback gothic romances. I have to be thorough, because these books tend to be slippery for the volunteers sorting donations into genres. In past fairs, I’ve found them in the horror/sci-fi/fantasy/true crime section, the general fiction section, the romance section, and the mystery section. This year I started in the horror/sci-fi/fantasy/true crime section:
There were enough Stephen King books to build a three car garage, but no gothic paperbacks. So I moved on to the romance section. I found Hannah Massey, which bears some similarities to the gothic paperback romances I seek, with its “women running from houses” vibe:
Nothing on the book cover explicitly said gothic, so I flipped to the inside:
After my guffaw reverberated to the rafters of the barn, I put this one in the “to buy” pile. As I continued flipping through box upon box of romance, I was constantly delighted by the books and their previous owners. So much so that I wanted to enumerate some reasons why romance and romance readers are the best.
1. Romance Cover Art Is the Most Extra
A preface: I fully acknowledge that these older covers are troubling in their idealization of whiteness, thinness, heterosexuality, abled bodies, colonialism, and more. Too many of these old covers (and their texts) depict racist stereotypes of Native Americans, something publishers and writers haven’t reckoned with appropriately. That said, it’s possible to hold romance accountable for its ills while also appreciating some pastel splendor.
Her hair is literally coins:
2. Barbara Cartland is #AuthorGoals
One of the most prolific romance authors of all time, Barbara Cartland’s books pop up quite often at the fair:
Her books are always worth flipping over. Why?
An author photo for the ages.
3. Romance Readers’ Annotations Are the Best
It’s key to open up old romance paperbacks. You’ll sometimes find opinions, as on this Barbara Cartland book:
You’ll also see how the books were shared between readers. This book passed through at least six different people’s hands:
Romance readers are consistently generous not just with recommendations but also the books themselves. Plus, when publishing companies fail readers with inadequate book design, clever readers sometimes pick up the slack:
Wouldn’t it be great to know from a spine which series a book belonged to? With a post-it note, you can DIY.
4. Harlequin Novels Are So Fun
Every once in a while, I get the urge to collect old Harlequin novels. The trouble is there are simply too many and I have a small house. I almost bought this one:
It’s great because there is basically no implication in title or cover that there’s a man anywhere. In my mind was The Ecstasy of Cornelia Day, a recent read of mine about a woman in love with her haunted house. I have decided that in Hospital by the Lake, the woman on the cover is in love with the lake. I absolutely will not be reading the text to be proven wrong.
Some Harlequin novels have titles that are very mysterious:
Others wear their tropes on their sleeves:
And some covers simply crack me up:
5. What’s Up With All the Horses?
I mean, I know what’s up with all the horses. But the combination of the horse and tiny woman in the corner of this cover definitely had me singing the “Tiny Horse” song to myself in the barn:
And her hair is literally horses:
6. You Can Find Stepbacks and Other Romance Reader Prizes
I love to hunt for a good stepback among romance paperbacks. Stepbacks are the “secret” illustrations inside a book’s cover. One of the telltale signs is a book cover that is slightly less wide than the pages:
It lures you to look inside:
This cover of Pearls is significantly narrower than the pages. It’s not even trying to keep the stepback a secret:
You just know from this stepback that this book is absolutely bananas:
Even if the cover is flush with the pages, a stepback can often be found behind a cover with an inanimate object.
This one reveals a sumptuous desert scene:
And thanks to a tweet from romance reviewer bandherbooks, I also knew to be on the lookout for fold-out maps in Kathleen Woodiwiss novels:
This one not only has a map, but also an ad for The Thorn Birds:
The Thorn Birds is, by the way, the origin of many people’s appreciation for the “hot priest” trope, decades ahead of Fleabag.
In the End, Some Books Came Home With Me
Yes, I purchased a goodly pile of books, all for a good cause. As someone who wants to understand both where romance came from and where it’s going, I enjoy picking up books that were “before my time.” Especially ones that are on the more scandalous end of the spectrum. Here are a few of my treasures:
You, too, are sure to find some treasures if you come across a trove of old paperback romances. Check out your local thrift stores, friends of the library sales, and estate sales. Look for stepbacks and annotations. Share what you find! Most of all, have fun with it. If this list proves anything, it’s that romance readers are always having the most fun.