Clarissa Murphy pressed “post” on her Facebook status after just finishing the 10th book in one of her favorite romance series, not thinking anyone would seriously respond or anything would come of it. That is, until Paul Swyden, owner of The Silver Bookstore in Acton, Mass., replied, setting her haphazard, unplanned idea for a romance-only bookstore into motion.
A Whirlwind Romance Pop-Up Store is a temporary bookstore located in the heart of Somerville’s Bow Market, alongside a kitschy ’80s après ski pop-up, a vintage boutique, and a vegetarian poutine restaurant. For six days (Feb.13-18), Bow Market hosted A Whirlwind Romance, catering to all of the romance book lovers just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“[I] threw it out on Facebook just sort of for kicks, you know, wouldn’t it be fun to do a romance genre only pop-up,” Murphy said. “Paul sent me a message and off we went … it just kind of worked out perfectly.”
Murphy, a nonfiction children’s book buyer for MIT Press in Cambridge, and Swyden had fate on their side this Valentine’s Day after Murphy’s half-joking call to Facebook for a romance book pop-up came to fruition. A book buyer turned romance genre enthusiast and a bookstore owner, their combined force was unstoppable.
All they needed was a venue.
It just so happened that Bow Market had space available during a holiday dedicated to love for Murphy and Swyden to set up shop and stuff the entire room with romance novels.
But for Murphy, A Whirlwind Romance isn’t just about idyllic, starry-eyed portrayals of modern love and sex—rather, she saw a pop-up romance bookstore as an opportunity to validate romance readers, a novel genre Murphy feels often gets distorted and stigmatized. As an avid reader, both in the romance genre and otherwise, and a professional book buyer, Murphy has recognized that the romance readership is often dismissed as not reading “real” books, a practice Murphy notices manifests itself in childhood.
“A lot of people, you know, they assume that the writing wasn’t good, or that it wasn’t worth your time, or wasn’t meaningful in some way, which isn’t true,” Murphy continued. “Sometimes if you, you know, are seen buying a stack of romance books, people will kind of poke fun at you. I’m like, why? There’s no reason to.”
In the back left corner of the store, a life-sized cardboard cutout of a mostly naked man stands tall—this man, named Fabio Lanzoni, has graced the cover of more than a few stereotypical romance novels, such as Savage Thunder and Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey, throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Even as A Whirlwind Romance displays a shirtless Lanzoni and takes place during the year’s most lovey-dovey holiday, Murphy was clear to point out that romance novels are not simply about sex, as the public has generally assumed—this has lead to the stigmatization of the entire genre.
Murphy went further to explain while romance novels can be the cheesy, stereotypically sexy variety—a la Lanzoni—they can also be a method of coping and healing, giving depth to the romance novel genre.
“Publishers Weekly has written a lot of really great articles over the past couple years, and several of them are articles written by people who worked through sexual assaults and other like emotional events by reading romance,” Murphy said.
One Publisher’s Weekly article, titled “In Recovery with Romance Novels,” gives no details of the author’s assault but affirms that she used romance novels to heal, sorting through her traumatic experience by rediscovering love and consent.
“To pick up a novel is an act of consent; to open the pages of a book is an act of consent; engaging in reading is an act of consent,” author Robin Lovett writes. “The romance genre offers three guarantees vital to my trauma recovery: heroines with agency, a happily ever after, and sex positivity.”
Lovett further elaborates that romance novels were her way to work through her issues when nothing else was effective—sometimes post-trauma programs and her support system could only go so far. But it was reading romance novels that helped her process what had happened to her. Like Murphy mentioned, the romance genre as a whole isn’t just about cliched, heteronormative novels. Rather, romance novels are relatively political, and book publishers and buyers like Murphy have picked up on that.
“I think a lot of people would—they kind of seem to assume that the romance genre was all like, big, burly men just having their way with women and there not being consent,” Murphy said, “When really … publishers have parameters that books have to meet in order for them to want to publish it.”
Murphy’s goal in building A Whirlwind Romance was unique: Not only did she want to bring in an abundance of mushy novels right around Valentine’s Day, but she also wanted to bring awareness to the advancements of the romance genre.
“I think I did a pretty good job,” Murphy said as she smiled. “It was fun.”
Images by Isabella Cavazzoni / Heights Editor