Red Light Specials

Forget the plain brown wrappers - sexy books are out there on respectable bookstore shelves next to Twain and Poe.

October 18, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The trickle, at once literary and titillating, began in July.

As book buyer Dee Peeler remembers it, the first to arrive was a rather indelicate, how-to sexual guide that promised the "lowdown" on sexual techniques, toys and positions. That was followed in August by Jenna Jameson's salacious, if heartbreaking, life story about her rise from teenage pole dancer to porn-queen extraordinaire looking for love, marriage and babies. Next came a coffee table book picturing porn stars posed and exposed.

Then the floodgates opened with a whole slew of sexually explicit books.

Not so long ago, buying a sex book meant going to an adult bookstore. But now, as sexuality has become so large a part of the cultural mainstream, corner bookstores as well as the national chains are trying to get in on the action while also maintaining family-friendly respectability.

Peeler, whose Greetings & Readings in Towson is an independent bookstore, green-lighted the first book, How to Have a XXX Sex Life: The Ultimate Vivid Guide and Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, both released by ReganBooks. But she nixed Timothy Greenfield's just released XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits.

"We had to take a stand on that Portraits one," Peeler said. "We decided it's maybe not something this store can carry, partly because of the cover. We're more of a family store, so we are careful about what we display and how we display things. These books do present a problem for us.

"They're really graphic and there's more and more of them all the time. It's a sticky situation."

Books that were once taboo have slowly migrated from their old haunts and begun to show up in mainstream venues. Some, such as Jameson's, are even landing on the New York Times' and other national best-seller lists.

Sales like that make it hard for booksellers to shun such steamy matter.

"We weren't planning on stocking the Jameson book until we had some people ask for it," said Rebecca Oppenheimer, an assistant at The Ivy bookstore in Mount Washington. "We have two on the shelf now. We try to keep our stock pretty classy. We don't really like carrying them, but we will. We have to serve the needs of our customers."

At Barnes & Noble in Towson, Pamela Anderson's novel, Star, is on display with other new fiction near a store entrance. The book is loosely based on Anderson's life and includes, one reviewer wrote, "staggering sex scenes that are too lurid to repeat."

Some publishers have found ways to help booksellers overcome their squeamishness.

Atria Books gives stores a choice between two covers of Anderson's book. One version shows a nude Anderson pinup and the other has a pink star strategically covering parts of the same image. Most stores have chosen the version with less skin.

"As booksellers, our job is to bring books to the community, and those books can come from all walks of life," said Sam Ranocchia, manager of the Towson Barnes & Noble. "We don't discriminate. We don't censor. We're not going to hide books because of their content."

But to carry such books also means that Ranocchia and other store employees have to occasionally play book cop.

"If anyone who appears under age is looking those books over, I'll jump all over them," said Ranocchia, who added that the store has received no complaints about stocking sex-oriented books.

Out of the way

At the nearby Towson Borders, it takes some effort to find Greenfield's Portraits, which sits right above Jameson's biography. Portraits, a 12-by-10-inch tome with a nude cover photograph of Jameson covering her breasts with her arms, is located on the top-most shelf of the store's sections devoted to biographies of film and television personalities. That section happens to be tucked away in a far, dark corner of the store.

Kids and the height-challenged will have a hard time getting their hands on either book without asking for a step stool.

"What's on the cover really determines how it's displayed," said Michael Wainwright, multimedia manager of Borders. "That's why Portraits is up high. We don't want just anybody flipping through those books. We haven't gotten any complaints about them."

Wainwright says that with cable television showcasing more sex, foul language and violence - a la The Sopranos and Sex and the City - and the Internet, where you can do almost anything anonymously, "everyone's pushing the envelope more to compete. It's become more accepted."

Sex sells. And not just to men, either.

Women have been buying romance novels for years, but publishers, including Harlequin Enterprises, now publish such novels that are far steamier and far more sexually explicit than their standard and beloved bodice-rippers.

"Women are reading these books," said Victoria Brown- worth, a writer of erotica who pointed to the appeal of strong, powerful female characters that are usually features in these types of books. "That's really allowed these books to explode."

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