Monday, January 21, 2008

Independent Bookstores Snub Romance Fans -- Or Do They?

I live in a suburb and work in downtown Seattle. I have a husband, two kids, one of whom plays soccer, I drive an SUV, I make scrapbooks and quilts, I get my grande non-fat vanilla lattes from the drive-through at Starbucks, I eat too much chocolate and don’t exercise enough, and I TiVo All My Children every single weekday.

I am a living, breathing, stereotype.

As it happens, I also have a BS in engineering, an MBA from a top-tier school, and standardized test scores that could get me into Mensa if I were so inclined. (Bear with me, this part becomes relevant later on.)

I usually get my book fix from Borders', because it’s the closest store to me. A bit further afield, I have two Barnes’ & Nobles that I can get to, one of which is open later during the week, so sometimes I meet up with a fellow mom-friend after the kids are in bed. Then too, I try to get to the local UBS once a month or so, more to get rid of books than to get new ones, otherwise I’d drown in them. I have more credit there than I could ever hope to spend.

Now, I get why people are concerned about the corporatizing and franchising and homogenizing of retail book selling. I get why people are passionate about supporting independent bookstores… sort of. The thing is, I love the chains. They have big romance sections, good coffee, cushy chairs, late hours, and the crafty magazines I want. They get the new releases from the authors I love early. And I can take a stack of 7 or 8 romances to the front desk without expecting any eyerolls or dismissive glances.

So the other day, as chronicled below, I was desperately missing JR Ward’s #2 book, Lover Eternal, and coincidentally was meeting a colleague for lunch at the Elliott Bay Bookstore. So hey, it’s worth a try, right? I wander through the general fiction section, spotting Mystery, Sci-Fi, and a little shelf of Horrors, but I can’t find Romance. So, not being the shy type, I ask at the information desk. To give the woman working the desk credit, I get no judgey vibe from her as she apologetically tells me that they don’t really carry any romance. At all. In a store with over 150,000 titles in inventory.

Call me crazy, but this seems a little weird to me. And frankly it pisses me off. Romance is the single largest selling category of any kind of book, according to Publishers’ Weekly. The most recent stats I could find were for 2000:

Romance – 283 million units
Mystery – 187 million
Sci Fi – 53
General fiction – 88

General non-fiction –105
Cooking – 135
Religion – 126

That’s at least twice the volume of every other category except Mystery, which is still 100 million units in the dust. So why on earth would any bookstore opt out of the category entirely? It made no sense to me. The only answer is the kind of anti-romance pseudo-intellectual snobbery that persists in coloring romance readers as big-haired gum-cracking airheads with bright sparkly blue eyeshadow. As if John Grisham or Mercedes Lackey are somehow more highbrow than Nora Roberts or Mary Balogh. You can see where I’m going with this, right?

I had this scathing anti-Elliott’s blog post forming in my head, but I thought maybe it would be a good idea to see what the policy is at similar bookstores (perhaps the better to pummel Elliott’s with). I know Powell’s in Portland has a romance section – I’ve been there. I’ve also been to Strand Books in Manhattan, but to tell you the truth I can’t remember for sure if they have a romance section or not-- though I think I would’ve noticed and remembered if they didn’t.

I emailed 15 independent bookstores around the country. I compiled the list from a 10 Best article, a USA Today article , and by asking a crowd of book-loving friends. Five stores responded back, and all but Prairie Lights in Iowa City do have romance sections. Still, it’s hard to call that a victory with another 10 queries unanswered (including The Strand). However, some insight came from Neil Strandberg at Tattered Cover in Denver, CO:

The word on the street as it has appeared in some surveys is that Romance readers, even though customers of independent book stores, actually - mindfully - choose to obtain their romances at grocery stores or elsewhere. I'm vaguely recalling one responded explaining that she had such a strong relationship with her independent bookseller that she was afraid to buy a romance at that shop.

Yeah, so that took the wind out of my sails. Are we the only readers out there who are embarrassed to be “caught” reading our material of choice? So embarrassed, in fact, that we go out of our way to separate our romance purchases from other book purchases?

Screw that, people. I’m begging of you, grow a spine. That anti-romance snobbery originates with US—I’m pretty sure that the indie bookstores would be happy to sell us anything we’re willing to fork over the green for. Stop hiding the books you love. Meet snide remarks with confidence – do you really think that mysteries or thrillers or sci-fi’s are somehow more literary than romance? Do you really think that reading romance softens your brain? Did you know that, according to RWA:

42% of Romance readers have a bachelor's degree or higher
27% have college degrees
15% have post-graduate work or degrees
7% have associate degrees
17% have attended a trade school or have some college
23% have high school diplomas

AND 22% of romance readers are male. Betcha didn’t see that coming.

It’s up to us, readers, to change that image. Trust me on this: reading romances doesn’t make you stupid. However, pretending that you don’t read them when you do, does make you a hypocrite.

And if you ARE wearing sparkly blue eyeshadow, you might want to rethink.

Particular thanks to the bookstores that responded to my inquiry:
Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City IA
Tattered Cover, Denver Co
Powell's, Portland OR
Title Wave, Anchorage AK
Book People, Austin TX


Betsy O'Donovan said...

Could I love you more? I could only love you more if you wrote that post while wearing sparkly blue eyeshadow, took a picture of it, and used it as your profile photo for this blog.

On second thought, um, not so much. It turns out I couldn't love you (or this blog post) more.

Anonymous said...

Sing it, sister! I've only recently started reading romance on a regular basis (and you can take a lot of the credit for that), and I'm annoyed to learn that Elliott Bay doesn't stock them.

I'll have to look to see if my other favorite independent bookstores have romances. Since a B&N opened a few blocks from my house, I've been too lazy to go anywhere else for books, so I don't know.

I've long stopped being embarrassed for anyone to know I read them, though I admit to taking pains to hide the cheesy cover art on some books. Does that mean I'm still ashamed of them on some level?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and can you explain these stats? Aren't those two categories the same?

* 42% of Romance readers have a bachelor's degree or higher
* 27% have college degrees

Nicola O. said...

It does look weird, doesn't it? I think the 42% is the 27% with bachelor's plus 15% with post-grad work.

platitudinal said...

Hi, Nicola,

My aunt who is also an engineer loves to read romance books. She never covers her books, and borrows bunches of them from the library without wearing a mask during busy hour. She takes her book everywhere, and anytime she can read, she reads unabashedly.

I'm surprised of that independent book store. The used book store in my town has a large section of romance books, even the Regency genre.

Ciara said...

Oh I know I was so irritated when I went to Elliott Bay Bookstore and found they had NO romance section, but they did have a horror section. And guess what was included in the horror section? That's right, paranormal romance. Cuz apparently it's okay to read it if it's not really romance.

I heart powells big time. Their romance section is HUGE. Makes me want to move to Portland. AND they have a romance book club AND romance author book signings!!! Powells - please move to Seattle? Pretty please?

Nicola O. said...

I noticed the same thing at the Uni bookstore at the Jacqueline Carey signing. Tiny, pathetic, one-rack Romance section, BUT all of the paranormal, suspense, and UF crossover stuff was prominently displayed in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section.

It kinda cracks me up when it doesn't piss me off. "psssst, guess what? you're reading.... romance! OMG!"


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