Little paper hearts — hundreds of them — plaster the walls, like wet fallen leaves swept up in a sudden gust.
Candles with names like “Evermore,” “Cruel Summer” and “Lover” perfume the air.
A rose-colored sofa offers a place for visitors to relax, perhaps to swoon.
But don’t be fooled, there’s something dark going on inside The Last Chapter Book Shop in Roscoe Village, which opened in early September.
Something like this: “I’d been kidnapped by a certifiably insane bastard who thought he was the devil.”
Or this: “My mother used to say beautiful things were wrought from the most unimaginable pain. Then she’d put her cigarette out on my stomach, in case I needed a reminder that whatever beauty I possessed was still a work in progress.”
Last Chapter isn’t your grandmother’s romance bookstore — well, not just your grandmother’s. For those who find the traditional bodice ripper a bit anti-climactic, there’s romance of the contemporary, fantasy, sports, LGBTQ+ variety and, as in the samples above, there’s dark romance, too.
Dark romance for dark times?
Perhaps, but it’s still a romance novel, in which the unbreakable rule of happily ever after still applies.
“This person was abused, but they can still find love, they can still learn to re-love themselves,” explains Amanda Anderson, the bookstore owner. “In books, you get to see people go through so much and still find happiness at the end of the day.”
Romance in its myriad varieties sells. When Anderson, 28, first opened her doors in September, the wait to get in was upwards of three hours for some. She estimates she’s drawing about 2,500 customers a week. She also sells books online.
Anderson’s is the only bookstore in the city devoted to romance novels, she says. The next nearest is Love’s Sweet Arrow, in Tinley Park, which opened in 2019 and has seen annual sales grow about 35% since that time, said part-owner Roseann Backlin.
“The world is still a s - - - show right now,” Backlin said. “So anything we as people can do to just block it out and just have some enjoyment in our lives — that’s what we’re looking for.”
Anderson’s store woos customers with something online merchants can’t: comfy sofas, scented candles and three “selfie booths,” one of which encourages customers to write the names of their crushes [“Captain America,” “Taylor Swift” and “Peter Pan,” among them] on paper hearts and stick them on the walls. Another booth offers a tub of colored chalks and a chalkboard with an ever-changing theme. Last week, it read: “He’s a ten but …”
To which, one person responded: “He needs a mom, not a girlfriend.”
Anderson, a lifelong fan of romance novels, said the genre literally saved her life after she lost her godmother to cancer a few years ago.
“It made me come to terms with and put a name to the face of the emotions I was feeling and that I will be OK one day,” Anderson said.
Jen Vihon, 32, of Wicker Park is a painter and a graduate of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. She’s also unashamedly “dipping” her toes into the romance genre.
Vihon said her partner, a bookseller, broke her of a “snobbishness about genre fiction.”
“The context of the story in a romance novel makes the sex of the story so much more interesting than what you get in conventional porn,” she said. Porn “works for some people, but I find it uninspired and often quite problematic in terms of the way women are treated.”
Vihon was one of several dozen people who browsed the shelves in Anderson’s store on a recent weekday afternoon — almost all of them young women.
Sara Bastian, 26, came with her boyfriend, Randy Santiago, both of Lake View. He was there to keep her company — nothing more.
Bastian, a writer herself, said she’s fond of a number of romance sub-genres, including something called “fake dating.”
“I also like ‘friends to lovers’ because that can be endearing and sweet, and not as stressful as something like ‘enemies to lovers,’ but I also do like ‘enemies to lovers,’ ” she said.
Anderson is herself single and dating casually, she said.
But she’s looking for true love.
And what might that look like?
There’s a novel, she says, in which the heroine develops amnesia — not even recognizing the man she loves. He’s so selfless he doesn’t tell her about their relationship, not wanting to disrupt her healing.
“He says that if she finds happiness without me, I’m still going to love her from afar,” Anderson explained. “Oh my gosh, I was crying. It was so beautiful … The act of true love.”