Romance novels are exploding in popularity, and SLC now has a bookstore dedicated to the genre

Lovebound Library, in Salt Lake City’s Maven District, sells romance novels in all its many subgenres.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lovebound Library owner Courtney Stookey in her bookstore on 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

Sometimes, as Courtney Stookey can attest, a good book connects with a reader at the perfectly right time.

In Stookey’s case, that book was one of the inspirations for her new business, Lovebound Library, Utah’s only romance-focused bookstore. The store, at 145 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, is having its soft opening this week — hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays — and is planning a grand opening event on Saturday, with discounts and treats.

For Stookey, the book that connected with her was Emily Henry’s “Happy Place,” a romance novel that spent 19 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list last year. When Stookey talks about the book, her eyes brighten and she speaks with enthusiasm — the way a reader gets when talking about a favorite or personally meaningful book.

“It’s kind of a second-chance romance,” she said. “They break up [and] work towards getting back together. But really one of the big factors in a breakup was one of his parents had passed.”

When she read the book, Stookey said, she and her husband were going through a similar situation — because her mother-in-law was ill.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lovebound Library owner Courtney Stookey in her bookstore on 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

“We were going through all of the pre-grief [and] post-grief, and reading it,” she said. “I’d never read a book that had been so true to what I was going through already, and it was just very therapeutic reading how these couples are navigating this huge life change.”

Another plot point that spoke to Stookey, she said, was how the novel’s main female character, Harriet, quits her job as a surgeon to make pottery full-time.

Pottery, she said, is “what she loves, her hobby. … It inspired me so much to really think about, ‘OK, what’s really important? What’s going to make me happy?’”

Stookey said she had been working at O.C. Tanner, which she enjoyed, but she wasn’t feeling the same passion for it as she does with the store. So she, like Harriet, is following her dream.

Another source of inspiration, she said, was the growth of other genre-niche bookstores. In Salt Lake City, the LGBTQ+ bookstore Under the Umbrella and fantasy and sci-fi bookstore The Legendarium (just two blocks east of Lovebound Library) have opened in the last two years. Nationwide, there are such romance-themed bookstores as The Ripped Bodice (with locations in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Culver City, Calif.) and The Blush Bookstore in Wichita, Kansas.

Seeing The Legendarium and Under the Umbrella attract big local audiences, Stookey said, made her say, “OK, Salt Lake is really the place to do this. We have such great book lovers already.”

“I just wanted to create a space where romance readers can feel that excitement of walking in, because I remember the first time walking into The Legendarium,” she said. Stookey said she’s always been a big reader of fantasy — and, before the COVID-19 pandemic, she got into the mystery, thrillers and true-crime genres.

“But when I found romance right around when the pandemic started, it was like a breath of fresh air,” Stookey said. “Just finding that happy ending and being able to read and feel all these emotions, … crying for these characters that are going through things that we all go through.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lovebound Library owner Courtney Stookey in her bookstore on 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

‘A very safe space’

Just before Lovebound Library’s soft opening, Stookey was taking books from boxes and putting them on the shelves. The authors whose books are in stock include big name authors in romance, as well as some locals — such as Lyla Sage and the duo known collectively as Christina Lauren.

Stookey works with a supplier who shares recommendations about what’s popular nationwide and particularly in Utah. She also pays attention to BookTok, the book-loving subset of TikTok. And customers can order specific books through the store.

In addition to the books, which feature all romantic subgenres — including LGBTQIA+, historical and ‘romantasy’ — the store is stocked with cute reader merch, in a “Barbie”-level celebration of female joy.

There are tote bags with reader-focused sayings, book-inspired candles (such as one meant to smell like Rhysand, the hot male protagonist of Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series), book journals and pens, and colorful bookmarks from Utah creator Gigi&Bo that have such sayings as “Hot Girls Read.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Books by Sarah J. Maas at Lovebound Library on 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

Stookey said about 90% of the store’s products are from women-owned businesses, or from women or queer authors. And the store’s piped-in music celebrates female artists, with a playlist that includes Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, Maisie Peters and Sabrina Carpenter.

Even with a female-centered inventory and vibe, Stookey said she hopes Lovebound Library can be a store for everyone, regardless of gender or sexual identity.

“I know there is kind of the whole stigma of ‘romance is only for women,’ but it’s really not,” she said. “I want people to feel empowered to come in, whoever you are, … and just feel empowered and not judged. This is a very safe space and that’s what I really wanted to create.”

The bookstore is in Salt Lake City’s The Maven District, which is a haven for women-owned businesses. It’s one of Stookey’s favorite places in Utah, she said, “so being able to be a part of something that I’ve already respected and loved so much, it feels very surreal, still.”

The store is in what used to be the nonalcoholic bar Curiosity, which closed last fall. Stookey has kept a couple of fixtures from Curiosity — including a table near one of the windows and a large shelving fixture — and the color scheme.

“When I had a vision for the bookstore. I always envisioned it being green and pink,” she said. That’s what Curiosity had, though she did give the pink shade an update.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Items for sale at Lovebound Library on 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

‘You escape into it’

At Lovebound Library, the romantic tropes are exchanged like trading cards. In one window, jars contain recommendations for whatever someone is looking for in their next read: “age gap,” “grumpy x sunshine” or “enemies to lovers.” The joy of reading, whatever one’s tastes, is celebrated.

In making recommendations to customers, Stookey said she’s learned that there are many subgenres in romance — so it depends on what people are looking for. Some of her go-to authors, though, are Lucy Score, Tessa Bailey and Sarah Adams.

“This genre has kind of been looked down upon in the literary world for decades,” she said. “With this generation, everybody’s kind of realizing that it’s a great genre.”

Romance, she said, is about “finding stories [where] we can all resonate with the characters, like ‘Happy Place’ for me. I can find something that really rings true and then just see how they navigate it. … That’s really all the romance novel is: These characters [are] navigating their lives and relationships, and you escape into it, and it’s just fun.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lovebound Library on 900 South in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.