Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Mass., are cities associated with politics and academia, respectively, but in the aisles of two independent bookstores, readers are finding something different on the shelves. D.C.’s Politics and Prose and Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store both have new sections for romance books—signs of growing interest in a genre that indie booksellers have traditionally paid little attention to.

Three years ago, Katharine Fergason, Harvard’s children’s book buyer, suggested adding a romance section to the store, but her pitch fell flat with fellow staff members. Among the questions she fielded from colleagues: “Are there professors who are going to see the bookstore as less?”

A year later, Fergason tried again, staking a claim on an underused, narrow case of six shelves at the start of the bookstore’s fiction section. Her new pitch won approval, and Fergason launched the section with a little more than 60 titles.

Around the same time, Alexis Jason-Matthews was dusting off a worn-looking romance shelf at Washington’s Politics and Prose and thinking about how to get more readers interested in the section. By 2017, confident that there were interested readers, she launched a romance book club and was planning events.

“She was the one who formed the section, curated it, and maintained it,” said Keith Vient, Jason-Matthews’s boyfriend and the bookseller who runs the section today. “She also got me into it,” he explained. “A good romance is very engaging, a good page-turner. They’re fun when they’re done right. It always starts out the same way. You know who’s going to get together, but the fun is how they get together.” It turned out that he was not alone.

Last summer, the bookstore hosted a panel of romance writers in front of a standing-room only crowd. As the bookstore quickly sold out of all of the books on hand for the event, Vient said, he thought, “Wow, this is an untapped market.”

Cindy Hwang, v-p and editorial director at Berkley, agrees that romance titles are an untapped market for indies, but she said booksellers have been reticent in the past to stock them. “I think conventional wisdom has always been that indie bookstores don’t cater to readers who are genre readers—that most of them get their books online or at the big chain bookstores,” she noted. As a result, indie booksellers rarely carried them. “But it became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she added, persisting even as the decline of box stores and a widened readership for romance, following the publication of the 50 Shades of Grey series, created new reasons for indies to stock the books.

When Hwang acquired Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date, she saw an opportunity to change that relationship through the design of the book. “It was a contemporary romance where I thought I could reach a larger nongenre readership,” Hwang said. She published the book as a trade paperback, and it was the first time Berkley broke with the mass market format in order to reach indie bookstore readers. “Our job as publishers is to attract new readers,” she added.

The book was published in January with some praiseworthy comments from author Roxane Gay, and it gained a wide readership through indie bookstores. “I really do think that the package helped a lot in getting it attention and acceptance at indie bookstores,” said Hwang, who is set to publish another trade paperback aimed at indies, The Kiss Quotient, in June.

Amy Pierpont, editor-in-chief of Hachette Book Group’s Forever imprint, said that though few indies have full-fledged romance sections, the publisher is increasingly able to reach them through author events. Pierpont said there are dozens of bookstores where Forever has sent its authors or has them slated to read in the coming months, including Tattered Cover in Denver; Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Chapter 2 Books in Hudson, Wis. An event with Mia Sheriden at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati drew 150 attendees last year, and Pierpont expects a similar-size event when Sheriden returns to Joseph Beth later this year. She said that Forever cultivates relationships with booksellers through their marketing and sales teams, looking to help indies reach readers via social media.

New Content, New Readers

New content is helping to drive the growing interest in romance among readers and booksellers alike. “The romance genre has really changed since it started,” said Fergason, of Harvard Book Store. There are still persistent problems with diversity in the genre, but she noted that the days of Fabio covers are gone and that newer books are drawing readers who also buy literary fiction, history, and memoir. “It’s an issue of feminism,” she added. “Romance is written by women, produced by women, read by women.”

At the same time, readers are looking for entertainment. Next month, Harvard Book Store will host Guillory for the store’s first romance reading. The event will be held at a nearby theater, with romance-themed programming, including an opening reading by Boston Globe columnist Meredith Goldstein.

Despite the popularity of such events, Fergason and Vient both noted that keeping books on the shelves can be a challenge given the size of their stores’ respective sections. In addition, they said that many romance books are difficult for independent bookstores to obtain, because of return policies on self-published works and other factors.

Politics and Prose and Harvard Book Store try to keep up by engaging directly with readers. Vient noted that the romance book club helps determine what Politics and Prose will stock in the section. Because the club is racially and ethnically diverse, he said, the section appeals to a wide readership, though that has yet to extend to men. “I’m still the only man in the group,” he added.

At Harvard Book Store, Fergason works closely with sales reps and keeps a rotation of books to try to entice readers to start reading series. She also added a personal disclaimer at the start of the section, reading, “Harvard Book Store didn’t have a romance section for its first 82 years. The section may be still be little, but it is fierce.”

Browsing the section on a recent afternoon, customer Eric Selinger, who teaches modern romance literature at DePaul University, agreed. “It’s a very well-curated romance section,” he said. “For somebody who didn’t know the romance genre, who wanted to get a good start on it, these authors are good places to start.”

Promoting Romance in Richmond, Austin, and Beyond

Cathy Maxwell is the author of such bestselling novels as A Match Made in Bed, If Ever I Should Love You, and A Date at the Alter: Marrying the Duke, all published by Avon. She’s also a tireless promoter of romance novels in general, constantly searching for ways to bring readers and books together.

While living in Richmond, Va., Maxwell started a reading salon patterned after the Lady Jane Salon in New York City, which was launched by romance writers Hope Tarr and Maya Rodale. Lady Jane meetings are usually held in a bar, but Maxwell realized that wasn’t quite right for Richmond; instead, events are held at a yarn shop opened by Debbie Floyd, a retired librarian, called Dances with Wool. With similar demographics for both store and readers, the salon was an immediate success for all concerned.

Since moving to Austin, Tex., last year, Maxwell has continued her efforts. Avon Books arranged for local indie bookstore BookPeople to host KissCon, a multi-author, audience-interactive book event quite different from the store’s traditional signings. The goal was to affiliate BookPeople with Austin’s local Romance Writers of America chapter, to help introduce the store to local romance readers as “romance friendly,” and to fill its bookshelves with monthly selections chosen by Maxwell. The event was a success, and Maxwell continues to work with BookPeople, writing a monthly romance blog.

In addition to her work with BookPeople, Maxwell has created the Heart of ATX reading salon, held at Assemblage, a contemporary art gallery. The first salon occurred last November, and almost all of the 40 available seats were reserved (tickets are free; suggested $5 donations to a local charity are collected at the door). The next salon, scheduled for June 1, is already sold out.

“It is fun to hear an author read from her work,” Maxwell said about the salon’s success. “In my last Austin salon, I had two attendees who made certain that I knew they didn’t read ‘romance.’ By the end of the evening, they both purchased the books read that evening and a few more. I do like pushing people’s perception of romance.” —Dennis Abrams