Falling in Love Again : Readers can’t help it, says the owner of a booming new-used romance bookstore in Costa Mesa. Novels are ‘an addiction.’


When Toni Bruner sold her successful Costa Mesa tea shop in 1984 she was mentally and physically exhausted.


Then “for three years I sat around and did nothing but read romances,” Bruner said. “I got addicted.”

By 1987, Bruner had accumulated 1,500 paperback love stories, which she systematically stashed in the garage of her home. Ready to return to work, she gathered up her small library of paperbacks and opened Recycled Romances in a 325-square-foot space at 145 Broadway in Costa Mesa.


Today Bruner’s store has more than doubled in size, stocking more than 20,000 new and used romances. Even though she now also sells mysteries and horror novels among other books, the romance genre remains the backbone of her business, accounting for about 75% of the store’s sales.

In a little less than six years, Bruner’s bookstore has emerged as one of the largest sellers of romances in Orange County.

Bruner says that “fantasy and escapism” account for the appeal of the happily-ever-after stories she still avidly reads.

“Life is not exciting these days. Everyone is worried about their jobs,” Bruner says. “I’m a necessity because (my books) are an addiction.”

There’s no doubt that many readers of romances gobble them up faster than a moviegoer munches popcorn.

According to a study released by romance publisher Harlequin Enterprises, romantic fiction accounts for almost 50% of all mass-market paperback books sold in the United States and Canada, generating $532 million in sales in 1991--the most recent year for which figures are available. The majority of romance readers spend at least $30 a month on the novels.

And while romance novels are commonly dismissed as soft porn for housewives, Harlequin’s marketing studies have shown that 57% of romance readers are employed and 48% attended college.

In fact, the rise of modern romance novels roughly parallels the women’s movement.

Romances were traditionally sedate, short books with little sex. But in the early 1970s, author Kathleen Woodiwiss broke the mold with “The Flame and the Flower.” The epic love story featured relatively graphic sex scenes that resulted in even more torrid profits for its publisher.

Imitators were published by the dozens and grasped by eager readers. Harlequin Enterprises, the Canadian-based firm that made its fortune marketing the sweet stories, began to branch out, offering lines ranging from traditional romances to longer and steamier tales, which boosted its profits considerably. Harlequin and its subsidiary, Silhouette, are currently responsible for roughly 75% of all romance novel sales in North America.

“You can see the transformation of the novels (over time) from heroines who are secretaries to being the boss of the company,” says Malle Vallik, an editor for Harlequin’s steamy Temptation line, noted for its fiery heroines and detailed sex. “In these worlds, the woman wins. She can have a career and a husband who helps take care of the children. She can have it all.”

Recent heroines in the Temptation line have included a wilderness guide intent on protecting a lush Canadian valley from commercial development, as well as a woman acting as a private detective in order to uncover the mystery behind her father’s disappearance.

But one stereotype for romance readers remains as true as it ever was: well over 90% of the genre’s readers are female. “The world of romance is strictly a woman’s world,” says Kathryn Falk, editor of Romantic Times, a New York-based magazine devoted to the genre. “The readers, editors and booksellers are all women.”

And that is clearly evident in Bruner’s store, where a community of sorts has sprung up among the the genre’s fans.

“A romance reader can come into the shop and meet romance readers,” Bruner says. “If you were a closet romance reader when you came here, you find friends.”

Bruner greets most of her customers by name--at least those heading toward her romance section, which is decorated in promotional book posters signed by bestselling romance writers. Over time, a number of Bruner’s faithful clientele have become more than mere acquaintances.

Holly, 27, an accounting student at Orange Coast College, discovered the shop when she and her husband moved to Orange County from the Midwest four years ago. She helps out in the store when Bruner needs time off and often helps with the monthly inventory.

“It’s a nice friendly place to relax and chat,” says Holly.

Bruner assists her readers in lending books to each other, a practice she admits makes no business sense but one that her customers--and friends--find immensely helpful.

“This bookstore is like a sorority,” says Trudy San Paolo, 49. “People talk to each other and ask if they’ve read this or that book.”

One of Bruner’s latest bestsellers is the historical romance “Border Lord,” by Arnette Lamb, which features an 18th-Century female diplomat who finds love even as she brings peace to troubled neighbors.

The success of novels such as “Border Lord” points to what some say accounts for much of romance fiction’s popularity: the books represent a feminine point of view in a masculine-dominated world.

“The way (women) communicate isn’t always valued,” says Damaris Rowland, a romance editor at Dell Publishing in New York. “(Readers) identify with a woman who faces all kinds of adversity and gets through it.

“I think women’s nature is brought forward on a richly satisfying, if fantasy, level. These books feature women’s nurturing skills, women’s sexuality and women’s sense of community.”

Jana Tjiook, 31, who reads at least 10 romances a month, drives from Burbank to visit Bruner’s store.

“The female (heroines) are stubborn and daring,” Tjiook said. “They have character and they don’t just fall over their husbands.”

San Paolo is among those who say they read the novels mainly to unwind after a hard day’s work.

“All day I listen to people having financial and medical problems,” says San Paolo, who works as a supervisor of social services for Orange County. “I go home, I want something uplifting. The books are just a distraction, a way to get away from pressures.”

But there’s no escaping that even as the genre has drawn increased attention, many readers still feel there is a stigma attached to reading romances. (Several of those interviewed didn’t want their full names or professions listed in this article.)

“It’s the old double standard,” says Nadine Rodriguez, 56, a retired nurse living in Newport Beach. “It’s accepted for men to read anything sexual, but we’re not even supposed to know about sex.”

Many readers blame the novels’ famous--some might say infamous--covers for the stigma: illustrations that frequently feature scantily clad women with heaving bosoms falling into the arms of strong, scantily clad men.

“I think most of the books have less sex than the movies you pick up in a video store,” San Paolo said. “The covers often look a lot sexier than they are. Some look like they could ignite.”

For the squeamish, Bruner carries cloth book covers so her customers can read their books in public without fear of embarrassment.

“It’s called a stash-your-trash,” Bruner says. “All kinds of people read romances and some don’t want you to know.”

But there’s no doubt that sex is part of the romantic mystique. In general, the steamier the book, the more it sells, Bruner says.

“Maybe men should read them,” Bruner suggests. “They’ll learn something about how women want to be treated.”

Karen Amarillas, co-president of the Orange County chapter of Romance Writers of America and author of “Snow Angel,” a Harlequin historical, says she thinks its the idealized love stories themselves that are the key to the novels’ appeal.

“Don’t we all hope in our lives for a relationship nothing can destroy?” she says. “That’s what we write, and that’s why I think it touches so many women.”