Adventures in Thrifting

Romance Novel Covers

I’ve written much about shopping at secondhand stores, but I’ve never written about the books. Yet, there are a great deal – arguably too man – books to be found. As always, you can sometimes find great gems, like when I found a signed copy of Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me at a Goodwill for fifty cents. Who donated that, and where can I find them to smack them? Unless they died or something… in which case, my apologies for the smacking.

But as always, among the gems, there’s a lot of dross. Outdated almanacs and guidebooks, justly-forgotten political and celebrity memoirs, highly specific cookbooks (MEALS FOR THE HOMEBOUND DIABETIC), calculus textbooks from 1972, etc.

And then there are the romance novels.

Whether you consider romance novels to be gems or dross largely depends on your point of view. Romance novels sell a great deal of copies, even in this day and age, but they are largely considered embarrassing. For many reasons, but high up there are the covers.

Oh, the covers.

For starters, the books are usually called something fairly unsubtle, and there’s lots of bright and shiny colors:

If you’re lucky, there’s no clinch right there on the cover, but open it up…

Is that guy wearing Uggs? Or did he just take off a Santa Costume?

Maybe something like this…


Anyone who’s ever read a romance novel is familiar with the Cover Hide. You fold the cover back, hide it behind a more highbrow book or simply only read the book in private where no one can see.

But this Cover Hide is set to become a thing of the past, since people can now read romance novels guilt-free on e-readers. In fact, initial research seems to show that people feel much more comfortable buying perceived “trash” on an e-reader, since no one can see that embarrassing cover.

But as the Awful Romance Novel Cover is set to become a thing of the past, I have become correspondingly affectionate about it. As Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan point out  in Beyond Heaving Bosoms, their awesome book about romance novels, there are certain things only romance novel fans can appreciate, and the be-mulleted heroes and swooning damsels on the covers are one of those things.

Plus, if you go to a place that sells secondhand books, there will be plenty of paperback romance novels.


The above photo was taken at a secondhand book sale to support the Friends of the Pima County Libraries (support your local libraries!). I went there on an early date with my Significant Other, who at first eagerly listened to my book recommendations and kept saying, “It’s so nice to spend time with someone who loves books and secondhand bookstores!” I was hitting it out of the park, my friends.

Then I saw the romance novel section and my eyes lit up. “Let’s go look at all the Romance Novels!” I squealed.

“Um, I’ll just… go over here,” said S.O., clearly not prepared to trust my judgement that far. When I started taking pictures of romance novels, the volunteer in that section asked not to be in the pictures as she didn’t want to be photographed with them. So, clearly the Curse of the Embarrassing Covers is alive and well.

The books, I love them. The covers… they are so dumb. I love them. Yeah, I said it. This is one of my favorite books, and the edition is unusual because it only has a lady on the cover:

Hey, at least there’s no guy with a tight pants and a mullet, right?

Except open the insert and…

There’s the shirtless mullet tight pants dude!

The same-ness of the covers can be both comforting (going back to the same old world) and annoying (really, do we have to present everything in the same old stereotypes?). In an essay entitled “The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance” from the book Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, author Laura Kinsale argues that readers don’t always identify with the heroine, but might also like to identify the hero. She attributes part of the success of one of her famous novels, The Prince of Midnight, to the fact that it only had a man on the cover, an unusual move (the book is almost entirely from the male character’s point of of view). And, yes, that man was Fabio. However, a new addition takes the more traditional approach:

Sigh. Boring!

Here’s an interesting thing I noted while looking through the big ol’ romance novel stack at this sale. For one, how do you know what makes a romance novel? Can you always judge a book by its cover?

For instance, I among the stacks I found an Anne Tyler novel, Breathing Lessons:

It’s a slight understatement to say that Anne Tyler’s books are given more respect than romance novels (she won the freakin’ Pulitzer Prize), but you can forgive the mis-shelving–the paper was in shiny colors and had the same fold-out-flap style cover as a romance novel, simply without the clinch:

And after all, not all romance novels have the clinch. It’s hard to say at a quick glance what makes Breathing Lessons any different than say, Amanda Quick’s Reckless?

I also found Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride in the Romance Novel section, for similar reasons.

When I drew these two books to the Volunteer-Who-Didn’t-Want-to-be-Photographed-with-Romance-Novel’s attention, she said, “Oh, those shouldn’t be here!” and eagerly reshelved them. But it brings up the question… why not? After all, Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood write fiction that has a lot to do with family and romance and love. The Robber Bride takes inspiration from a fairy tale – and many romance novels similarly take inspiration from history, fairy tales and myths…

For instance, one of my favorite books is A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance. This Booker-Prize-winning written novel is about as literary can be, but… you know, it’s a romance. There’s nineteenth-century (and twentieth-century) romancin’ going on in it.

In fact, A.S. Byatt wrote an essay about Georgette Heyer, a prolific historical romance novelist, in the book Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective. The essay is entitled “Georgette Heyer is a Better Writer than You Think,” and in it, Byatt says that she’s writing the essay as a sort of penance for having pretended for much of her life not to read Heyer, when in fact she was a passionate fan.

Byatt was too embarrassed.

So if you go to a thrift store, pick up a handful of romance novels. Heck, secondhand books are cheap and you can easily donate them back when you’re done. Plus, in our brave new world of e-readers (and I have nothing against e-readers, mind you), the awful romance novel cover is going the way of the dodo, and we won’t get to enjoy things like this:

or this

or this

For much longer.