The thin, watery light of a Northern dawn trickles down the hillside, highlighting patches of mist and glinting off the dewdrops coating the heather. The raucous, guttural call of a grouse rings out from some hidden hollow. All else is silent. All else is still.
But wait! What’s this? Movement. A lone figure has appeared over the rise, striding purposefully down the hillside. Could it be…. is it… the Highlander?
It most certainly is. But his presence here answers nothing. It brings only questions. What has happened to his shirt, for a start? We’re pretty damn close to the Arctic circle up here. The silly bugger is going to catch his death of a cold.
Why is he covered in baby oil? And how does he manage to keep his hair in such fabulous condition? The only time I ever washed my hair in a loch and conditioned it with sheep-fat I was attacked by crows. And I won’t even begin to speculate on where he found a tanning bed and a steady supply of steroids in 15th century Scotland.
Wait! What is he up to now? Oh look; he’s whipped out his enormous claymore and is waving it around as if trying to awaken Sigmund Freud from the dead…
It’s time to tackle fiction. Or at least a small slice of fiction. Romances.
I was born in the early seventies. This means that I hit my teens right in the middle of the eighties, the greatest of all decades. We ruled. We had the greatest music ever heard, clothes that set the benchmark for subtle understatement, and hair with enough gel in it to render crash-helmets redundant.
But it wasn’t all good. The eighties marked the beginning of the golden age of the chick-flick. In order to get anywhere near a teenage girl, a teenage boy had to endure a rite of passage; Dirty Dancing, an excruciating ordeal of a movie about a twenty five year old man who seduces an underage girl and then throws her around in a lake so that she can win her father’s approval by dancing, as explained in the title, real dirty. Dads love that.
For half a decade, teenage girls tested the resolve of potential suitors by forcing them to watch Dirty Dancing. And you couldn’t get away with simply enduring it, either. You had to pretend to like it. To be a real contender, you had to know it. Teenage girls in the late eighties knew the entire movie, word for word. Ask any woman who grew up in the eighties about carrying watermelons or who puts Baby in the corner and she will glaze over and start mumbling “I’ve, had, the time of my liiiife, and I’ve never felt this way before…”
Fire! Can you smell the smoke, driving the breath from your lungs and clawing at the back of your throat? The flames crackle angrily, devouring all in their path? What will become of us? Is there no hero who will rush to our aid and save the day?
Fear not! The Fireman is here! We are saved!
Oops! My mistake. Fear! It is the worst fireman in the world! Just look at the silly bugger! Clearly he skipped out one of the most important chapters in The Big Boy’s Book of Firefighting. Yup. Chaper one: Protective Clothing. Already the heat seems to have singed all the hair from his torso.
Get it together, man! You’re never going to put that fire out by flexing your pecs at it! Whip out your hose and get to work, before I am forced to take poor Sigmunds name in vain again!
For five long years, we struggled through Dirty Dancing, but even the most horrific of ordeals must pass. In 1990, its reign of terror came to an end. It was replaced by something worse. Pretty Woman; a movie that taught teenage girls that the quickest way to a billionaire’s heart was to become a prostitute.
So why am I telling you all this? No reason, really, except that a scene from Pretty Woman ties into what we’re talking about today.
There is a scene where Julia Roberts’s character goes into an exclusive boutique on Rodeo Drive, where she is made to feel cheap and common by the arrogant, snooty shop assistants. It was a scene designed to make your blood boil. How dare they?
So what has that got to do with Exclusive Books in Clearwater? Nothing. And everything. We sell books. All kinds of books. But for some reason people tend to feel self-conscious about buying romance novels. It must be all those missing shirts, or the idea that To Seduce a Vampire is unlikely to make the shortlist for the Booker prize.
This is a real thing. In the late 90’s, Romance books made up about 5% of bestsellers. In the last few years, that number has risen to about 25%. Because of the internet. You can buy books online these days, or download them to your e-reader. No-one feels self-conscious behind a keyboard.
To some Romance fans, we become arrogant, snooty Pretty Woman boutique assistants by default, looking down our noses at your copy of To Tame a Rogue Highland Cowboy while silently quoting Dostoevsky to keep our spotless minds uncontaminated. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Arizona sun beats down like a hammer, baking the parched earth to concrete and turning the far horizon into a sheet of shimmering silver. The heat is a living thing, wrapping those in its path in a suffocating embrace and reaching tendrils into the shadows.
Wait! Who is that long, cool drink of water leaning casually against the split-wood corral with his Stetson pulled low over his eyes? Is it the Cowboy?
It most certainly is. But what has happened to his shirt? Does he know nothing about the risks of skin cancer? And what has happened to the clearly much smaller man whose jeans he is now wearing?
Don’t be fooled by his relaxed demeanour. Just look at those washboard abs. He is poised, ready for action, a coiled serpent ready to strike. Any moment now he is going to leap onto the back of his mustang and ride off to rope a Longhorn. Oh, Sigmund, where art though?
I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
I’m a Louis L’amour fan. Yup; the Western guy. The man wrote the same book over a hundred times. The hero with a past rode down out of the hills, stirred up trouble with the bad guys, fell in love with the girl despite hardly even speaking to her, and then got himself shot and holed up in the backwoods for a while, before coming back out, killing everybody, and riding off with the girl.
I used to read them while I was studying. I found one lying around a dorm while I was supposed to be studying Latin, and I discovered I could plough through it in an hour without occupying any valuable studying space in my mind. I was hooked. Now they fill me with nostalgia, and if I come across one on a sale or in a second hand shop these days, I will snap it up and be done with it by sunset.
Most of the booksellers I have known over the years have had their little vices.
The manor house looms dark and imposing over the grand fountain at the entrance. The butler stands patiently at the door, hands by his sides, ready to receive the lunchtime guests. A horse stamps its foot and nickers quietly as a groom steps forward to place a comforting hand on its cheek. A short way off, the pack of hounds mill around frantically, baying in anticipation of the afternoon’s hunt. But where is the Earl?
Ah. There he is, under the willow down by the riverside. And he has a shirt on. But what’s this? He’s not alone! Is that his sister’s new governess with him? It most certainly is.
There seems to have been some sort of incident. The fastenings of her bodice seem to have come loose, and his shirt has damn near been torn from his body. What could have happened? Perhaps the unfortunate woman was overtaken by a particularly violent swoon. She still seems to be breathing quite heavily. Thank god the Earl was close enough to rush to her aid.
I hope he has some smelling salts on him; he is supposed to be meeting the Cholmondeley-Smythes for elevenses in five minutes.
The best sorts of booksellers do what they do because they are addicts. They read because they must; because they need a flow of words to still their souls and fill their empty spaces. They read because they cannot relax out on the beach without a tattered paperback on their knees, because they cannot sleep without a flood of bright words in their heads to keep the darkness at bay, and because the bathroom is a cold and lonely place without a book to keep you company. They don’t read to feel smarter than anyone else. Lock them in a pantry and they will disappoint Macgyver by reading the nutritional information on the backs of all the cans and boxes instead of improvising a lock-pick out of dry spaghetti and pie tins.
They do read worthy stuff. Important books. Heavy books; the books that challenge your prejudices and change your ideas about yourself and the world you live in. The books that win prizes and crack the nod for the Times Literary Supplement. But here’s the thing; those books are worth reading. They are important. But they are very seldom fun. Anyone who giggled their way through Disgrace bears watching by the authorities. You need to put in a little hard work to reap the rewards of those books.
So what do booksellers do to unwind between heavy books? Read. Light books. They read children’s books with cartoon illustrations and fart jokes. They read science-fiction books based on computer games. They read fantasy books with elf-girls clad in impractically scanty armour on the cover. They read teen fiction about sparkly vampires and mass market chick-lit about girls called Siobhan who work for Vogue magazine and drink boysenberry lattes but cannot find true love. And they read romance novels. Mostly about vampires. Again. I know not why. They’re an odd bunch.
2 am. The city is as close to silent as it will ever be. The pale yellow cones of light cast by the streetlights serve only to highlight the surrounding darkness. A dustbin lid clatters to the floor in an alley, punctuated by the startled yowl of a cat. A lone car sweeps silently down the road, its headlights picking carefully through the shadows, like a crow in the aftermath of an ancient battle. It passes.
All is still for a moment, as if they city itself has drawn its breath in anticipation.
The deepest of the shadows ripples almost imperceptibly, then swells and splits as a shard of darkness itself steps out onto the sidewalk. Vampire!
What mysterious force has driven him from his ancient refuge? Is it hunger? Does the living blood of mortals call out to him, driving him to try once more to fill his long-dead veins with a vital pulse, with stolen life?
Does he stalk the streets in search of his ancient, implacable enemy of his kind, the werewolf? There was an incident in 1132 involving a second-hand coffin and a vial of holy water that was never satisfactorily resolved, and the two have been going at it hammer and tongs ever since.
No. This living embodiment of the night has broken cover for another purpose. He has a date. He’s meeting that nice paranormal investigator, Emily. He hasn’t been able to stop thinking about her since he ran into her in that techno club last week. He stops for a second to pluck a small yellow flower that had struggled its way up through a crack in the concrete. He raises it to his nose and sniffs it deeply before letting out a happy sigh. He purses his lips and whistles a jaunty little tune as he skips off down the road.
Do not be fooled. This is a creature of the darkness, and things could turn ugly at a moment’s notice. I pity the poor restaurant manager who is going to have to explain to him that he cannot get a table unless he goes home and puts a shirt on. Vampire!
You see, booksellers know the same thing that romance readers know. Reading is entertainment. And it is yours and yours alone. It happens inside your head, the one place where you are truly free and nobody else gets a say. There is no reason it shouldn’t be fun. If your tax return is overdue, and your husband’s attractive new secretary keeps answering his phone when he’s working late, and your son is getting kicked out of school for filling the pool with iodine, and you wish to fly off to the highlands to be swept up in the arms of a dark-eyed savage with fabulous hair and a skirt, we aren’t going to judge you, I promise.
We are going to envy you. Or at least most of us are. Not me. I’m going to be too busy facing down the Dalton boys. They’re quick. But they’re about to learn the hard way that I’m quicker. Even with seven bullets lodged in the base of my spine and a nasty rash from sleeping rough out in the backwoods.
And that, good people, should be that. But it’s not.
Picture the scene; A distinguished, silver-haired man leans forward in his chair, mouth wide open and jaw hanging slack as his whisky trickles unnoticed to the carpet from the forgotten glass in his hand. The sound of the rugby commentary recedes into the background as his wife of forty years, the sweet little lady fussed over his breakfast that morning, brushing crumbs from his golf shirt and bullying him into eating more fibre, totters from the doorway to the lounge in a pair of 5 inch stilettos, clad in a tight leather corset, suspenders and stockings, a sturdy riding crop gripped firmly in one leather-gloved hand.
He gulps, eyes bulging, throat dry as dust. “You want me to what?”
There’s another side to Romance novels. Erotica. Erotica has been around since writing was invented. And before that there were pictures. But it was relegated to the shadows. It was the sort of thing that sweaty, unshaven men in rumpled raincoats bought from that shop around the corner that kept them under the counter for select customers who knew the password. Then the internet happened, and we all lightened up a bit. But a faint whiff of sordid impropriety remained.
And then, three years ago, something changed. Because of one book. Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s impossible to say why. It wasn’t the first book of its kind. It wasn’t particularly well written. But it must have been something, because so far it has sold over 100 million copies. The Great Gatsby has sold 25 million.
Its effect was phenomenal. Little old ladies were discussing it on the radio. University students were reading it on the bus. Mothers were reading it on park benches while their children played on the swings. And people were talking about it. Everywhere.
Especially in bookshops. This meant I had to endure some eye-watering discussions at the counter with women my mother’s age about how hard it was to get hold of the precise BDSM equipment they wanted. Clamps. Yup. I had casual conversations with grannies about intimate clamps and miniature whips. It was character-building.
But it was wonderful to see. Sex, you see, is just like reading, it’s supposed to be fun. But it tends to get so caught up in self-consciousness and shame and guilt and fear and betrayals small and large that we all forget that. And standing behind a counter in a bookshop at the height of the 50 Shades craze we got to see the whole world remember.
And it remembers still. Erotica has gone mainstream. No more rumpled raincoats or sliding it across the counter between two magazines that you don’t even want. Just buy it. 100 000 000 have people have do so already. The ice hasn’t just been broken, it’s been shattered with a sledgehammer and left out in the sun. If you are the right sort of granny, you can even discuss it at volume with the other customers and the person behind the counter (I have rather a lot of character at this point. I’m ready for you).
It’s as fun and as silly and as escapist as the rest of the Romance books. But there’s more. The mind, they say, is the largest sexual organ in the body. It takes a while to switch it on, but once it has warmed up, it’s quite hard to switch of again. The fun part of reading Erotica doesn’t have to end when you put the book down, is what I’m saying.
He stands, hands clasped behind his back, broad shoulders filling out his immaculate grey suit as he looks out over the city from the window of his top-story office. He is in charge here, the master of this domain.
Slowly he turns around fixes his eye on the attractive young woman in front of him. “I want you to █████.” He says, fixing her with his piercing blue eyes. “I want you to █████, right here, in my office, but only once I give you permission to █████ it with your █████. Can I fix you a drink?”
She accepts, more to ease the tension than because she is thirsty. As she lifts the glass to take a sip, he █████ out an enormous █████ and █████ it with a █████ from the desk of his drawer. She gasps. Does he really think that she will simply █████ his █████ as he █████ █████ █████ with a short black leather █████? What does he take her for?
But he is relentless. Before she knows it she has █████ a █████ , █████ █████ █████ his manly chest as █████ █████ █████ a lavender scented candle and a small box of paper-clips.
“█████!” She groans, █████ her █████. “I never knew I could █████ like that. Does your █████ always █████ when the phone is ringing?”
“█████” He replies. “█████, and keep on █████ ‘til I give you permission to █████ it with a detailed map of all the city’s main bus-routes.”
She rankles, meeting his eye defiantly. But she obeys. At last, with a deep, sobbing █████, she █████ his █████ with a █████ and falls back exhausted in her chair. She is █████, her █████ █████ and her █████ █████, while he is as calm and collected as a █████. And he never even took off his shirt. Doctor Freud?
And that really was that up until a second ago. But I’ve just discovered a fun new game. Share your own reading vices with us. I’ve already started. Go on; It will be strictly confidential. The only people who will know are you and me and the whole of the internet…