Interview: Billie Bloebaum, Founder of Bookstore Romance Day

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August 17, 2019 marks the first Bookstore Romance Day, a grassroots celebration of the Romance genre by over 100 bookstores across the United States. Billie Bloebaum, the founder and “Evil Mastermind” behind the movement, sat down with Shelf Unbound to discuss her career in bookselling, misconceptions about Romance genre, and increasing the visibility of independent bookstores that respect and embrace the Romance genre and its dedicated readership. 

What was your path to a career in bookselling? 

BB:Modified nepotism. I got a job working in the publisher returns department for a large independent bookstore in part because my dad had worked in the same department and was, at the time I started, managing one of the company’s multiple locations. That was 1994. I stayed there until I moved to New Orleans in 1999. When I moved back to Portland in 2001, I went back to work for the same company and only left in 2014 because they drastically downsized the location I was working at. I never meant to make bookselling a career, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else. 

When did you become a romance reader?  

BB:I was raised on a steady diet of Disney movies and fairy tales, so the Happily Ever After has been part of my reading self for ages and ages. My first dive into Romance as a genre was in my late teens (so, the late 80s) and it started because my friends and I would pick them up at the corner store to find the most outrageous euphemisms (velvet flute, anyone?). It didn’t take long to realize that I found something supremely comforting and hopeful in the stories and I added them to my regular reading rotation. 

Are there certain authors or titles that you feel define you as a romance reader?

BB:The books that will give maybe the most-rounded idea of what I look for in the genre would be Johanna Lindsey’s The Silver Angel which is problematic as hell from a contemporary standpoint, but was an early favorite and still holds a sentimental place in my heart. Bet Me by Jennifer Cruise because it’s the first Romance I read with a curvy heroine and the first with a couple who made a choice to be child-free. A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long because it’s what I call a “longing” book—it’s all well-crafted simmering build-up and when the hero and heroine finally give in to their feelings, it’s explosive. That kind of long, slow, building sexual tension is really hard to do and it’s one of my favorite “book feels,” so I want to celebrate when it’s done as well as it is here. Temptations of a Wallflower by Eva Leigh because it’s the book that I recommend to anyone who claims to not understand the appeal of the genre. The heroine, Sarah, has a secret career as the writer of “racy” novels and there’s a passage where she’s explaining to the hero why she does what she does, why it’s so important to her and her readers and very neatly knocks down nearly every objection the uninformed have to the Romance genre. 

What do you feel are the most common misconceptions about romance? 

BB:That it’s formulaic. Yes, there needs to be a Happily Ever After (or Happy For Now), but there’s a lot of variation in what that looks like and how the characters get there. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels are far more formulaic than Romance, but you rarely, if ever, hear this criticism levelled against them. (Or against Mystery fiction or Adventure novels or Thrillers, all of which have their own formulas that have become formulas because they work.) That it’s “lady porn.” Yes, there are some spicy offerings, but there are also Romance novels where the hero and heroine don’t even kiss until the very last page, and even then it’s a fairly chaste endeavor. That it’s easy to write, which is the one that I really, really don’t get. Because the same people who claim that Romance is easy to write never actually do so themselves. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, so if it’s so easy to write a Romance novel, why isn’t every author claiming a piece of that pie for themselves? The truth is, it’s easy to write almost any kind of book. It is not easy to write any of them well.

Which recent or upcoming romance reads should be on our to-be read stacks? 

BB:Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore, Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan, Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

What spurred the creation of Bookstore Romance Day? 

BB:The groundwork was laid with the creation of a Facebook group in 2018 that was (and is) a place for independent booksellers to talk to each other about the Romance genre. The final spark for Bookstore Romance Day, though, was a Romance author on Twitter singing some version of the “Independent bookstores don’t support Romance, why should I support independent bookstores?” refrain, which spurred discussion in our FB group. It basically came down to us realizing, as a group, that we needed to be more visible and vocal and how do we do that? I was sort of joking when I suggested that we create a day to celebrate Romance in independent bookstores, and the idea somehow gained traction and here we are.

What is your goal for this inaugural year? 

BB:The metaphor I employ most often is a group of kids saying “Hey, let’s put on a show,” intending to do something simple in the backyard and finding themselves Off Broadway. I was hoping for maybe fifty bookstores participating and we have well over 100 at this point. Our resources are limited, so it’s really a grass roots, organic sort of thing this year. The base goal, though, is and always has been to celebrate the relationship between independent bookstores and Romance authors and readers and to create more of those relationships.

Where do you hope for the project to be one year from now?

BB:I honestly don’t know. I love what Independent Bookstore Day does and look to that event for inspiration. I would love to be able to offer t-shirts and tote bags that stores could sell. I have some ideas for merchandise that stores could offer—maybe year ‘round—alongside their Romance fiction. We’d love to have an Ambassador to be the public face of Bookstore Romance Day and help us spread our message. I want Bookstore Romance Day to be more than a once-a-year thing, though. I want the organization (such as it is) to be about advocating for the genre to independent bookstores. To that end, I’d love to have representatives at the regional Trade Shows this fall. I’d love to have representatives at Winter Institute and BookExpo and the RWA National Conference. Ultimately, I want to finally kill the idea that Romance is somehow beneath the dignity of independent bookstores and (pie in the sky time) to ensure that no reader ever again feels dismissed or looked down upon by an independent bookseller when they go in looking for Romance.

How can authors, bookstores, and readers get involved with Bookstore Romance Day?

BB:It’s not too late for bookstores to sign up to be a participating bookstore this year. You can sign up here.  We always appreciate people following us on social media,  Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and liking and sharing our stuff. Shout us out to all your Romance-loving friends and family. If your favorite bookstore isn’t signed up, encourage them to do so. Support those bookstores who are participating, not just on August 17th, but all year ‘round.

If they really, really want to help, we have a GoFundMe and a Zazzle shop full of tees and totes and drinking vessels, the sales of which also funnel a little money into our coffers. And if we’re going to keep going past August 17th, we could always use more volunteers. Interested parties can e-mail info@bookstoreromanceday.org.

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