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A rotund woman with short thin hair, thick glasses, and an astute air, Roscom worked as a post-office clerk for 12 years before she bought the romance-book business from the man who had started it in the late 1980s. She was shopping in his store one day when she heard that the enterprise might be for sale. She pressed for details. She’d always dreamed of owning a store, had considered and rejected selling pets. (“I started thinking about how they get diseases. Some of them die.”) She’d thought about rubber stamps. (“I’ve been rubber-stamping for 21 years.”) But romance books had also become important in her life.

Although most of her customers started reading romance in junior high school, Roscom didn’t begin until she was 40. Her discovery came in 1993, at a time when she was reading magazines but not much else. One day, called for jury duty, “I picked up an old Victoria Holt,” she remembers. When she returned from her courthouse stint and reported to her postal coworkers her disappointment with Holt’s trademark Gothic style, they protested that Gothic romance was passé. “There’s no sex,” Roscom now states with authority. “It’s more dark and depressing — somebody you know is really a bad person. That sort of thing.” One acquaintance pressed a copy of Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendor upon her, and its light, funny tone bewitched Roscom. “It’s not incredibly spicy, but there is some sex. And it definitely makes you feel good when you read it.” Reading it “put me on the path of no return.”

Roscom’s friends pointed her to other books. “And I started branching out pretty quickly.” She began keeping a computerized list of every romance novel she read. On this list, she notes the one-to-five-star rating accorded each book by Romantic Times, the monthly bible of the industry. Next to that, she logs her own opinion of how many stars each book deserves. A few years ago, Roscom recorded her 1000th entry. Some of her customers were incredulous. Surrounded by all those books, how could Roscom not have devoured more? But Roscom isn’t the fastest reader. She figures most people consume 60 to 90 romance pages per hour but says her speed falls at the low end of that range. It’s a rate that allows her to complete a book every two to four days, depending on the length. In contrast, “I have customers who say they can whip right through two or three a day,” she discloses.

What Roscom lacks in speed, she makes up for in retention. “I can tell you about every book I’ve ever read.” Pick out a listing at random, The Passionate Ghost, for example, and she can deliver a quick précis: “That’s part of a whole series of books about ghosts. They’re Regency period, and basically they’re all about this house that’s haunted by this ghost. He appears to just a few people in the first book, and at the end you find that he was madly in love with the lady who’s now the grandmother matriarch through all the books. She dies and they end up together in the last one. It’s really a cute little story.”

If you ask Roscom about one of Christie Ridgway’s books, however, she’ll tell you she hasn’t read any of them. She’s made a point of avoiding books by San Diego County writers; she thinks if she disliked one and a customer asked her about it, she’d have to be truthful. But she would feel bad about doing so. Instead, her abstention allows her to say that she doesn’t have an opinion.

Unlike Roscom, Christie Ridgway followed the classic path to romance fandom. Ridgway says in sixth grade she started buying Harlequin romances from the Woolworth in the small Bay Area town where she grew up. “I loved them. My friends and I would trade them back and forth.” Nowadays the books “have more sensual content than they did at that time,” she notes. She herself writes books she wouldn’t recommend to a sixth grader, because of their explicit sexuality. “But back then they were okay.”

Trim and blond, Ridgway has the sort of wholesome good looks often seen in actresses playing housewives in TV commercials. A quote from Publishers Weekly that appears on the cover of This Perfect Kiss could apply as well to her as to her creation: “SMART, PEPPY…”

Almost as far back as her memory goes, she wanted to write. “I have spiral notebooks of my writing going back to second grade. Every Christmas my mom would give me a new notebook.” Ridgway did some news reporting in both high school and college but finally decided she wasn’t good at journalism. She shrank from asking tough questions. “I could feel people being uncomfortable, so I would back off.” At UC Santa Barbara, she studied English, however, rather than yielding to her parents’ conviction that a business major would be more practical.

In college, she met and fell in love with her future husband, now a high school and Grossmont College math teacher. A few years after graduation, they married, eventually settling in La Mesa, his hometown. By then Christie had decided that technical writing might be a way to make a living with words. She got a job with a local company but before long learned how to do computer programming for the firm. It paid better, and she says it provided psychic payoffs too. She likes the idea of everything fitting into little boxes. In an alternate life, she could imagine herself designing websites or being an interior decorator, bringing order to an untidy world.

Her study of literature in college had consumed all her reading time, and the programming job further influenced her pleasure-reading choices. “I was a young woman working with a lot of men in a very male setting.” She traveled a lot, and on airplanes and job sites, surrounded by older men, she wasn’t comfortable burying her nose in paperbacks plastered with images of bosomy young women wrapped in torrid embraces with tall, dark-eyed men. Instead, Ridgway read thrillers — novels by Robert Ludlum and the like, whose covers depicted knives dripping with blood.

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