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Romance novel boom spurs new bricks-and-mortar bookstores in Alberta

Kelsey Orlecki sweeps around the room at her bookstore, pointing to the different sections where she’s lining up colourful paperbacks.

Rows of contemporary fiction, fantasy series and stories highlighting 2SLGBTQ+ characters are arranged on tall shelves — from floor to ceiling, and they’re all romance novels.

Edmonton’s new romance-exclusive store The Book Boudoir caters directly to a fanbase of unabashedly proud romance readers, with new, young audiences of mostly women connecting over their shared obsession with the genre.

Orlecki left a corporate career to dive full-time into romance novels, starting with an online store last year. But the big response to her shop at local pop-up markets got her thinking more seriously about a bricks-and-mortar space, and she made it official on Valentine’s Day.

So many people lined up for The Book Boudoir’s Wednesday opening that Orlecki had to start turning customers away an hour and a half before closing time, and she was already ordering more books to replace her depleted stock the next day.

The store is part of a growing trend: A series of romance-only bookstores have opened their doors across the U.S. in recent years, starting with Los Angeles-based The Ripped Bodice in 2016.

Canada has at least three stores dedicated to the romance genre so far in Calgary, Saskatoon and now Edmonton — all founded within the last year. Other pop-up sellers and online shops that specialize in romance are also operating across the country.

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A new romance-exclusive bookstore in Edmonton is feeding a growing demand for the genre, with a big boost from online communities.

The popularity of romance isn’t brand new, but it’s grown even more recently.

Numbers from non-profit industry group BookNet Canada show romance sales saw a slight decline from 2017 to 2020, before the trend reversed. Sales increased by 11 per cent in 2021 before a huge 54 per cent jump in 2022.

And sales are still climbing, according to the organization’s latest statistics it’s up another 34 per cent, year over year, in the first half of 2023.

Businesses respond to ‘voracious’ readers

That’s no surprise to Nicola MacNaughton, who opened Calgary’s Slow Burn Books with her sister Shannon a year ago.

Two women laugh as they sit together in a bookstore with peach-coloured walls and a neon sign that reads "Slow Burn Books."
Slow Burn Books in Calgary — the brainchild of sisters Shannon and Nicola McNaughton — bills itself as a destination and community hub for romance readers. (Nora Hanako Photography)

“It’s one of those genres that people consume a lot of, and they’re very voracious in their reading.”

The post-2020 sales jump adds up for her and Orlecki — both describe getting back into reading during the pandemic, and falling hard for the escapism of romance novels. Finding other romance lovers on social media, especially TikTok’s thriving BookTok scene, was the next step.

But MacNaughton said readers are also showing up at specialty stores like hers for in-person guidance on their next read, based on their personal preferences for subgenre, romance tropes or a book’s level of “spice” — in romance lingo, how much on-the-page sex to expect, and how explicit it is.

Orlecki says she hopes to offer that experience too, whether shoppers are picking up their first rom-com, or they’re headed straight to the dark romance section for books with a heavy emphasis on mature themes, which Orlecki recommends only for experienced romance readers.

Books are lined up on a table, with a display of candles to the right and more bookshelves in the background.
Orlecki says she plans to carry a mix of popular romance novels and books written by independent authors who don’t have traditional publishers. (Madeline Smith/CBC)

“I want people to know that this is a safe space. You can come and shop and be comfortable in your own skin here,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re LGBTQ. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re into monster romance. I literally have all of it.”

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