'Fifty Shades of Grey' by E.L. James is selling books (and more)

The staff of the Pleasure Chest, a high-end West Hollywood sex shop, were first tipped to the "Fifty Shades of Grey" phenomenon by their accountant, who noticed a curious spike in sales a few weeks ago. New customers had been drawn to the store after reading the erotic novel about a young woman's submissive sexual relationship with a wealthy businessman, and wanted some products described in the book. Now the Pleasure Chest is organizing "Fifty Shades of Pleasure" workshops at its West Hollywood, Chicago and New York locations.

The shop isn't the only place feeling the "Fifty Shades" heat. Libraries in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, have waiting lists hundreds of people long for the paperback. Therapists are fielding racy questions about it. Grandmothers are discussing the book at family dinners — much to the embarrassment of their grown children.

"Fifty Shades of Grey," which was first published online and arrived in U.S. bookstores April 3, has become a cultural sensation, as even women who consider themselves modest are passing what is essentially a bondage book along to friends and family members with a wink. The first in a trilogy, "Fifty Shades" is now No. 1 on multiple bestseller lists and has been optioned by Universal Pictures.

Erotica has been around for ages, "Fifty Shades" doesn't cover wildly new territory, and videos of the acts described in the book are easily found online. So the massive interest in the novel has puzzled and surprised many observers. But Laura Berman, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, said "Fifty Shades" has become a 21st century must-read in part because of the seemingly retrograde relationship at its heart.

"This is a form of erotica that I think is touching a nerve with a lot of women," said Berman, who appears regularly as a sex expert on TV and added that strangers are approaching her in public to ask about the book. "There are type A, alpha women who need to be in control of absolutely everything in their homes, in their children's lives, in their families' lives. They're deciding where they go on vacation, what kind of clothes their husband wears. A lot of these women grew up with lots of inhibitions and they're overwhelmed and exhausted by the need to control everything. For them, this is an exciting and erotic fantasy."

Perhaps she's on to something. On Monday morning, during a discussion of the book on "The View," 82-year-old Barbara Walters remarked: "When you go home, you want the guy to be in charge. More than be in charge, do very kinky things."

Amy Tuch, 37, a married mother of three in Encino, said she normally reads biographies and classics but became intrigued when a friend recommended "Fifty Shades."

"I was a little horrified that I would be this fascinated by a story of a man dominating a woman," Tuch said. "I mean, I give to the Feminist Majority!"

She has finished all three books in the series, and found herself eager for more in the same vein. "I've definitely started reading more smut," said Tuch, who was an English literature major in college.

The novels were penned by E.L. James, a fortysomething former TV executive and mother of two who lives in West London; she had never written a book before. "Fifty Shades" began as a piece of self-published "Twilight" fan fiction, an online phenomenon where avid readers rewrite their favorite books. Early fans of "Fifty Shades" came from an especially ardent and social group — romance bookworms — and helped drive the Kindle versions of the three books to the top three spots on Amazon's fiction bestseller list.

One of the series' early adopters was Vanessa Tenembaum, a 34-year-old in New York City who read "Fifty Shades" on her Kindle in December, when it was available from Australian vanity publisher the Writer's Coffee Shop.

"I started reading it on a Wednesday, by Friday I was done and I immediately read the second one," Tenembaum said. "Then I had a panic attack when I realized number three wasn't out yet and I had to wait six weeks."

Tenembaum has now read the trilogy three times, and said she is reluctant to move on to other literature because of her attachment to the series' assertive and enigmatic leading man, Christian Grey.

"It's very bizarre," Tenembaum said. "I've never had a book that captures my attention in the way this book has. I have never fallen in love with a character as I've fallen in love with Christian Grey. As much as he's a freak and there is something wrong with him, there's something about him that you want to be a part of."

The enthusiasm of readers like Tenembaum was reaching New York's publishing world too. Anne Messitte, executive vice president and publisher for Random House's Vintage and Anchor Books imprint, learned about "Fifty Shades" in January from a colleague, and the next day heard mothers at her son's school in Manhattan buzzing about it.

"Those of us who heard about this happening in January were part of a word-of-mouth phenomenon," said Messitte, who acquired the U.S. publishing rights to the trilogy and has already put 1 million copies of the first book into the marketplace in its initial two weeks of physical sales.

"It's not typically the way a bestseller comes into the publishing industry. Usually there is a presentation by an agent, interest is generated, an auction happens. This was really about listening to readers and taking action. It's a bit unusual but it taps into all the things that help you know when a book is going to be a success."

"Fifty Shades" built steam among the world of romance readers, but soon grew beyond it. Sales of the novel have spiked all over the country, with readers scooping up the quick read in places as liberal as Seattle and conservative as Charlotte, N.C.

"It's reminiscent of the heyday of the giant Oprah picks, that we had a huge swell of interest in it with people rushing into the stores to buy it and talking to each other about it," said Liz Harwell, a buyer for Barnes & Noble.

For the publishing industry, there's something ineffable about the success of James' work.

"It's one of those right place, right time kind of things," said Harwell, who notes that the simple cover art featuring a necktie on a slate gray background differs from bodice-rippers' traditional bare-chested hunk motif. "Random House kept the basic art work from the original book, which is not common when you move from a small press to a large one. That attests to it being pretty good packaging."

The phenomenon is only likely to grow with books two and three hitting shelves on Tuesday, and the film adaptation on its way. In the meantime, some women are finding ways to live out their own versions of the fantasies in the books.

"We've had all these women coming in saying, 'Where do you keep your mommy porn?'" said Kristen Tribby, director of creative development and strategy at The Pleasure Chest. "Or a man will come in and say, 'My wife's reading this book. She attacked me three times last week. I've been married for 20 years and we rarely have sex three times in one week....' It is kind of opening up their sex life."

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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