6 Book Fair Photos that Prove Romance Novels and Readers are the Best


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In Bloomington, Indiana, we are spoiled with an enormous annual used book fair. It happened in mid-October, with proceeds benefiting a local food bank. I usually go alone because few people have as much patience for poring over boxes of books in barns at the county fairgrounds as I do. With the fair cancelled in 2020, I really hoped this year’s would be a good one. And lo, it was.

I’ve written before about developing a collecting strategy, something I recommend contemplating before going to such a big fair. My primary goal at this fair is finding paperback gothic romances. I have to be thorough, because these books tend to be slippery for the volunteers sorting donations into genres. In past fairs, I’ve found them in the horror/sci-fi/fantasy/true crime section, the general fiction section, the romance section, and the mystery section. This year I started in the horror/sci-fi/fantasy/true crime section:

A box of true crime books with a prop knife wedged in them
Don’t worry, it’s a prop.

There were enough Stephen King books to build a three car garage, but no gothic paperbacks. So I moved on to the romance section. I found Hannah Massey, which bears some similarities to the gothic paperback romances I seek, with its “women running from houses” vibe:

the cover of a book called Hannah Massey, with a woman running from a manor in a gloomy landscape with a red coat draped loosely over one shoulder
I love how she’s not actually wearing the coat.

Nothing on the book cover explicitly said gothic, so I flipped to the inside:

the blurb for Hannah Massey, which begins with
Mortal Kombat!

After my guffaw reverberated to the rafters of the barn, I put this one in the “to buy” pile. As I continued flipping through box upon box of romance, I was constantly delighted by the books and their previous owners. So much so that I wanted to enumerate some reasons why romance and romance readers are the best.

1. Romance Cover Art Is the Most Extra

A preface: I fully acknowledge that these older covers are troubling in their idealization of whiteness, thinness, heterosexuality, abled bodies, colonialism, and more. Too many of these old covers (and their texts) depict racist stereotypes of Native Americans, something publishers and writers haven’t reckoned with appropriately. That said, it’s possible to hold romance accountable for its ills while also appreciating some pastel splendor.

an array of 1980s looking romance novels with clinch covers, pastel covers, and lots of horses
What’s up with all the horses?

Her hair is literally coins:

The cover of a romance novel called Timeswept Lovers in which the woman's blond hair is blended with an image of gold coins
What do we think of the mustache?

2. Barbara Cartland is #AuthorGoals

One of the most prolific romance authors of all time, Barbara Cartland’s books pop up quite often at the fair:

the cover of a Barbara Cartland novel called Stolen Halo.
What do we think of the ascot?

Her books are always worth flipping over. Why?

The back of a Barbara Cartland novel, with opulent statues, a dog on an ottoman, and the author resplendent in gown, fur, and jewels.
Tag yourself: I’m left statue.

An author photo for the ages.

3. Romance Readers’ Annotations Are the Best

It’s key to open up old romance paperbacks. You’ll sometimes find opinions, as on this Barbara Cartland book:

the interior of a Barbara Carland book, with initials in pen and pencil and
That underline tells you everything you need to know.

You’ll also see how the books were shared between readers. This book passed through at least six different people’s hands:

The inside front cover and front page of a romance novel, with six names and initials written in different handwriting.
I want to be invited to their book club.

Romance readers are consistently generous not just with recommendations but also the books themselves. Plus, when publishing companies fail readers with inadequate book design, clever readers sometimes pick up the slack:

The spine of a romance paperback with a post-it note attached saying
For real though, why is it so hard to find which number a romance is in a series?

Wouldn’t it be great to know from a spine which series a book belonged to? With a post-it note, you can DIY.

4. Harlequin Novels Are So Fun

Every once in a while, I get the urge to collect old Harlequin novels. The trouble is there are simply too many and I have a small house. I almost bought this one:

an old Harlequin novel called Hospital by the Lake
She loves the lake, right?

It’s great because there is basically no implication in title or cover that there’s a man anywhere. In my mind was The Ecstasy of Cornelia Day, a recent read of mine about a woman in love with her haunted house. I have decided that in Hospital by the Lake, the woman on the cover is in love with the lake. I absolutely will not be reading the text to be proven wrong.

Some Harlequin novels have titles that are very mysterious:

An old Harlequin novel titled Hell is My Heaven
I’m not anticipating healthy relationship dynamics from this one.

Others wear their tropes on their sleeves:

Cover of a Harlequin novel called The Secret Baby
Has this author also written Snowed In, Enemies to Lovers, and Fake Dating? If not, they should.

And some covers simply crack me up:

A Harlequin novel called The Marriage Bracelet
Based on her expression, I think this woman would have preferred a wedding ring to whatever that cursed-looking “marriage bracelet” is.

5. What’s Up With All the Horses?

I mean, I know what’s up with all the horses. But the combination of the horse and tiny woman in the corner of this cover definitely had me singing the “Tiny Horse” song to myself in the barn:

cover of a book called Tender Betrayer, which has a couple in an embrace while a horse looks on but also a small version of the woman in the corner of the cover
She’s extra tiny todaaaaay!

And her hair is literally horses:

close up of a romance cover with a woman whose brown hair blends into images of horses
Tiny horse.

6. You Can Find Stepbacks and Other Romance Reader Prizes

I love to hunt for a good stepback among romance paperbacks. Stepbacks are the “secret” illustrations inside a book’s cover. One of the telltale signs is a book cover that is slightly less wide than the pages:

cover of If I Had You
See the tiny stripe along the right edge?

It lures you to look inside:

the stepback of If I Had You, featuring a castle on a cliff
Ugh, I came here for a couple in the throes of passion. Not a castle.

This cover of Pearls is significantly narrower than the pages. It’s not even trying to keep the stepback a secret:

cover of Celia Brayfield's Pearls, with an obvious stepback showing a woman's face peeking out
That pearl cufflink means business.

You just know from this stepback that this book is absolutely bananas:

The stepback for Pearls, featuring many dramatic scenes, including couples embracing, a woman singing on stage, a city being bombed, and pills
Tag yourself: I’m the loose pills.

Even if the cover is flush with the pages, a stepback can often be found behind a cover with an inanimate object.

cover of Johanna Lindsey's All I Need Is You showing a close up of a boot spur
A spur is a rather cheeky inanimate object if I do say so myself!

This one reveals a sumptuous desert scene:

stepback for All I Need is You, featuring a couple embracing in the desert
Watch out for that Joshua tree, you two.

And thanks to a tweet from romance reviewer bandherbooks, I also knew to be on the lookout for fold-out maps in Kathleen Woodiwiss novels:

cover of Kathleen Woodiwiss's Shanna
A true old school bodice ripper.

This one not only has a map, but also an ad for The Thorn Birds:

fold-out map in the back of Shanna and an ad for The Thorn Birds
Can we please bring these back???

The Thorn Birds is, by the way, the origin of many people’s appreciation for the “hot priest” trope, decades ahead of Fleabag.

In the End, Some Books Came Home With Me

Yes, I purchased a goodly pile of books, all for a good cause. As someone who wants to understand both where romance came from and where it’s going, I enjoy picking up books that were “before my time.” Especially ones that are on the more scandalous end of the spectrum. Here are a few of my treasures:

array of romance paperbacks: Julie Garwood's the Gift, Judith McNaught's Whitney My Love, Judith Krantz's Scruples, and Bertrice Small's The Innocent
I take my beach reading very seriously.

You, too, are sure to find some treasures if you come across a trove of old paperback romances. Check out your local thrift stores, friends of the library sales, and estate sales. Look for stepbacks and annotations. Share what you find! Most of all, have fun with it. If this list proves anything, it’s that romance readers are always having the most fun.


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