Alaska News

As the fervor for romance novels sizzles, a new Anchorage bookstore courts readers

Ally Hartman was starting to sweat.

Hartman, co-owner of the recently opened Anchorage romance bookstore Beauty and the Book, hadn’t yet opened the door. And already, a line that started with about a dozen people had more than quadrupled.

“I got here at 9 a.m. and people started showing up at 9:10,” Hartman said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, no other businesses are open in this strip mall. Are people showing up this early? We don’t open for another hour.’”

The turnout at the store’s grand opening earlier this month was representative of a trend in the romance genre. Spurred by TikTok subset BookTok and popular on-screen adaptations, the books have evolved with the culture, provoked conversation and created community. Several major cities have seen romance bookstores and pop-ups emerge.

And Alaska’s romance book culture is thriving too, with an abundance of authors, ardent readers and book groups.

“I was so nervous but it was also super exciting,” Hartman said. I didn’t think we were going to have 50 people show up, but it was very rewarding to see how many people were excited to come and check it out.”

The business came together quickly for Hartman and her sister Baylee Loyd, who is also a co-owner in the shop located at 4240 Old Seward Highway.


Inspired by another upstart Alaska romance book store, The Ivy Bookshop in Fairbanks, the sisters said they decided in early March to launch the store. Six weeks later, the wheels were in motion, and by early June they’d opened.

Taking a hands-on approach, they started contacting authors and began to source books, from releases by major publishers to indie books and locally produced works.

“We spent a lot of late nights doing research, getting in touch,” Hartman said. “We took that approach of reaching out to authors individually, even if they were an author with 120,000 followers on Instagram and their books are in Barnes & Noble. And it was pretty rewarding.”

Modern romance still has a smattering of the bare-chested-Fabio-fronted titles of decades ago, but it has largely moved into new territory in both plot and protagonist.

“Trends come and go,” said Karen Kiely, a romance reader who is also an author. “And as we see changes in society, we see them in the books as well. So we’re seeing that kind of speed up as well, social change. So what you see in society, you’re seeing in the books.”

Beauty and the Book has a pair of rooms, decorated for distinctly different types of romance. The first is pink, specializing in traditional romance, while the second caters to the darker type, filled with sci-fi, fantasy and provocative themes.

“Our dark romance room has been the most popular room,” Hartman said. “It’s really funny to see that everybody migrates immediately to that room, and I don’t know if they’re starting from the back and heading to the front, but it seems like most people like to hang out in that room.”

Among the most voracious readers in line on the day of the grand opening was Charlie Soderstrom, who left the store with 15 books jammed into a pair of bags.

After working as a travel nurse for a decade, Soderstrom is a recently settled resident of Anchorage who is in seven different book clubs collected from various work stops.

She said the books have broadened and appeal to a lot of different readers. A former hockey player, she’s a fan of the blossoming hockey romance subgenre, as well as some darker-themed books. The readers she interacts with range from wives and mothers looking for an escape to interested readers simply looking for a compelling story. While women are by far the biggest audience in the genre, she said men will join in as well.

“Also the dating pool, especially in Alaska, is just kind of nonsense,” she joked. “So we have to give ourselves a little bit of hope.”

That ideal is part of what makes the books fun to share and discuss.

”There’s always something that somebody can relate to,” Hartman said. “We’re a bunch of women reading about fictional men. You know, these men don’t exist, but they’re what we want.”

Hailey Nichols and MJ Johnson departed the store on opening day with a few books and plenty to talk about. Nichols, who said she’d written some “smutty fan fictions” on sites like Tumblr and Wattpad years ago, has recently got back into reading romance.

Both had a copy of a fairly graphic, Minotaur-centered romance novel penned by C. M. Nascosta that they said can be difficult to find at other bookstores.

“It was definitely more of a joke,” Nichols said. “I was like, ‘That’s so dumb and crazy but I’m going to read it.’ And it was actually like, really sweet and unexpectedly a slow burn.”

Johnson also selected “Haunting Adeline” by author H. D. Carlton, a book that is both popular and controversial.


“It’s very dark and very spicy,” she said “I’ve read it already, but I wanted to have it on my shelf. It definitely started my dark romance journey.”

While the dark romance room has been an especially popular place in the early days of Beauty and the Book, there’s also an area featuring 11 Alaska authors with a book from a 12th being added soon.

Standing with Kiely in line was Erin McLellan, a local author of a dozen novels who is featured in the locals space. McLellan has a graduate degree in library and information studies and worked for a time as a public librarian. During her studies, she started reading romance novels, an interest that eventually evolved into writing.

“I just wanted something happy,” she said. “I wanted something with joy and that’s kind of what brought me to romance. I was living in Houston, Texas, and I had a really long commute, and I’d sit there and think up stories and I’d get home and write stories.”

Other local authors include Lolo Paige, known for her series on wildland firefighters in Alaska, and Jessica Buss, known for her “By You” series. There are other local series with plots featuring bears and even yetis.

Decades ago, there may have been more of a stigma surrounding the genre, which some critics considered to be unserious, low-grade literature. When she was younger, Kiely recalled turning her books face down so no one could see what she was reading. But those days are long in the past, and romance readers today engage with friends and fellow fans at a rapid rate.

“There are more people saying, ‘I like this too and I read this too,’” Loyd said. “Everybody (at the store) was talking about what they like with no shame. That’s a big thing too, we don’t want anyone to feel judged for the books they’re reading or the characters they like to read. We have a lot of different variety in the store. We want it to be a safe place for the community to be able to come, talk and meet people that like the things they do.”

BookTok has bolstered a number of literary genres, but perhaps none more than romance, where online creators share reviews, make recommendations and spark debate.


Beauty and the Book hopes to be home for some of that debate, with plans to host events, book signings and other author appearances.

“(The opening) made us super hopeful it will continue to be a good spot for people to come and not just buy books, but you can come in here and study or work,” Hartman said. “It feels like a second home for us, and I hope that it’s a place that people can come and escape from their reality.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.