A Whirlwind Romance: How Bookstores and Readers Are Raising the Romance Genre

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By Jessica A. Kent
Feb. 14, 2019

Fabio has arrived, which can only mean one thing: It’s the time of year for Romance novels.

On Wednesday, February 13, A Whirlwind Romance pop-up bookstore opened at Bow Market in Union Square, just in time for Valentine’s Day (and will be open for some post-Valentine’s Day escapism, too). The Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton is partnering with longtime local bookseller Clarissa Murphy to make the pop-up possible, after Murphy posted the idea on social media after finishing the latest book in the romance series she was reading. “Hey wouldn't a romance genre pop up be fun?!” she posted, and soon Paul Swydan of The Silver Unicorn reached out to make it happen. To round out the team, Murphy, formerly of Wellesley Books and now of the MIT Press Bookstore, called upon the help of former Papercuts JP bookseller Katie Eelman to drive the pop-up into reality.

They’ll be at Bow Market, located in Union Square, a little cul-de-sac of shops set back from the street. Centered around an open courtyard, the two-floor semi-circle houses over thirty vendors in tiny shopfronts: fries, ice cream, vintage clothing, jewelry, vinyl, beer, and more. Think Boston Public Market, but with a different vibe, in an outdoor, more intimate setting.

The Whirlwind Romance pop-up may only be housed in 150-square-feet of space, but there’s a lot to discover amongst the tiered shelves. You’ll find traditional mass-market Regency romance series, but also contemporary romance (from Crazy Rich Asians to The Wedding Date to The Kiss Quotient), fantasy (from The Bear and the Nightingale to American Hippo to The Unleashing), and YA (from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to Tash Hearts Tolstoy to Puddin’). There are kids books, graphic novels, poetry, and gift items to discover as well. The intention was to stock a variety of titles and authors, but to also provide a selection of a single author’s titles as well. The stock was also chosen to feature LGBTQA+ romance, novels that address race and mental health, and novels that include non-binary characters.

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Visitors to the pop-up can not only take home a book or two (or ten), but will have the opportunity to meet two local authors. Nicole Galland and Meredith Goldstein will be stopping by on Saturday, February 16 for a booksigning. Galland, whose newest novel On the Same Page, about a journalist on Martha’s Vineyard, will be signing at 1:00pm. Goldstein, who writes The Globe’s “Love Letters” column, will be signing her new book Can't Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist at 6:00pm. Speaking of Fabio, visitors will also have the chance to get a picture with a larger-than-life-sized cutout of the cover icon, and create their own romance novel titles in a photobooth-style activity.

I had the chance to stop by the pop-up’s soft opening on Sunday, during Bow Market’s Galentine’s Day event. There was a steady stream of people coming in to browse, and the close spaces prompted folks to chat about their favorite books they saw in the displays, even giving each other recommendations, and pointing out romance novels that either broke the mold or addressed weightier topics. One browser mentioned that she was headed to Porter Square Books after, to attend their new Romance book club, now in its second month.

The fans of the genre seem strong! And yet there’s been a long-time stigma around Romance novels not being “real” literature. Yet they seem to be perennial bestseller. But I’ve recently seen that there are booksellers who are fighting to get Romance sections back in their stores. And while Fabio is usually everyone’s go-to association with Romance, finding out there are a number of Romance novels going beyond the “bodice-ripper” type to include diverse characters and themes got me wondering if there’s something more to the story.

Murphy hopes this pop-up will “help break down some of the prejudices against” the “classically shunned genre.” As a Romance reader and a bookseller, she has much insight into the subject, explaining that while Romance is a well-selling genre, a number of stores did away with their sections because of that perceived stigma. So Romance readers went elsewhere for their books, if they couldn’t find them at their local store. Re-introducing Romance sections can be a challenge because it’s building a customer base again against the retail timeline of needing stock to sell. “Many bookstores over this past year have started adding a romance section back to their store, or introducing one for the first time,” Murphy explains. “This is driven by romance readers and Romance-reading booksellers speaking out and actively fighting against the perceptions others have.”

What are the perceptions against Romance? Think of the Fabio associations, and the term “trashy romance” - there’s the assumption that they’re not well-written, or a cheap thrill, or fly in the face of “real literature.” Murphy points out that this isn’t a unique challenge to the Romance genre - it’s just the one being talked about now. Graphic novels, young adult fiction, and sci-fi/fantasy have all been traditionally marginalized genres that proved their worth in recent years, expanding the kinds of stories they tell and characters they feature. In many ways, graphic novels, young adult fiction, and sci-fi/fantasy have been at the forefront of addressing topics that more mainstream literature has shied away from. And like these genres, Romance is expanding its storytelling.

“The landscape is slowly starting to change, as more diverse writers break into the genre, and publishers take chances on love stories that reflect a broader range of experiences and don’t always fit the stereotypical girl-meets-boy mold,” notes a 2018 New York Times article entitled “The Changing Face of Romance.” The article focuses on The Kiss Quotient, a novel about an autistic woman navigating the waters of relationship, then goes on to detail imprints and authors expanding Romance novels past their traditionally white characters into protagonists who are of different races, genders, and abilities. A series of Publishers Weekly articles looks at how even the notion of consent is changing in the Romance genre. “Publishers are working hard to publish works with a diverse cast of characters, and works by diverse authors,” Murphy points out. “They are making leaps and bounds, and it is so heartening. Not that there isn't a long way to go, but progress is certainly being made.”

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One way progress is being made is with The Whirlwind Romance pop-up. As Murphy states, “Bookstores are about community, acceptance, and exploration,” and that’s the space she’s created at Bow Market. If you’re a Romance reader, you’ll find old and new loves amongst the shelves. And if you’re not traditionally a Romance reader, stop by anyway to learn more about the various books, and see that there’s much more to the genre. And what favs would Murphy recommend? “I can confidently say that there isn't a single book in the pop-up that I wouldn't recommend. I built the orders based on bookseller recommendations, my own personal loves, and those the publishers (who have very knowledgeable Romance-focused staff, by the way!) said I couldn't do without.” Top recommendations, though, would be Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole, which features a female swordsmith in Edinburgh; anything by Ilona Andrews, who is a husband and wife writing team writing fantasy; and anything by Tessa Dare.

At the end of the day, it’s about finding the books you love, that transport you, teach you, encourage you, or entertain you. Murphy firmly believes that you should “Love what you read, no matter what it is.”

A Whirlwind Romance will be open until February 18 at Bow Market (1 Bow Market Way, Somerville). Find more information at The Silver Unicorn Bookstore website.