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Looking for a little Valentine romance? Amazon.com says look to Columbia

COLUMBIA -- Usually, we have to report the regrettable news that our fair city is being found wanting in one national ranking or another.

It's still hard to shake off the bitter memories of Columbia's dark days of years past, such as when Money magazine ranked the city No. 291 in livability among the nation's largest 300 metropolitan areas.

But something is different in the air today. What is it?

Love.

With Valentine's Day a mere two days away -- you are aware of that, right, guys? -- there's far more than friendliness flowing in the Capital City.

Amazon.com recently announced its list of the Top 20 Most Romantic Cities in America, and Columbia gained romantic recognition with a sweet little 16.

Yes, that No. 16, as in right behind No. 14 Seattle and No. 15 San Francisco.

Him: Shall we leave our hearts in San Francisco this weekend, dear?

Her: I'd rather be sleepless in Seattle.

Him: What about Columbia?

Her: Where?

Him: It's in South Carolina. Amazon.com says it's just as romantic. I also hear it's the home to Mayor Bob.

Her: Sounds positively yummy.

All right, I'll admit that conversation will never take place. And

I'm still a little stunned that Columbia was anywhere near the Top 20, much less in it. My wife said she would have bet Columbia wouldn't have made it onto a list of the Top 20 Romantic Cities in South Carolina.

Here, however, is how Amazon.com compiled the list, and I quote: "The cities were selected based on sales data compiled on romance novels, relationship and sex books since Jan. 1, 2008."

So can book sales really determine how romantic a city is? For the answer to that, I went to see an actual authority on books, Andy Graves, owner of the Happy Bookseller.

"I'm as surprised as you are that we came in that high," Graves said.

Now has he ever spotted couples holding hands as they shop together for relationship books?

"Not that I've ever noticed. Maybe they're hiding from me," he said.

But he does see a correlation between his sales and the Amazon rankings.

"Relationship books are very strong sellers," Graves said. "We don't sell a lot of bodice-ripper type books, but we do sell a lot of historical fiction, which has some romantic elements to it."

Um, what about sex books?

"We don't sell a lot of sex books," he said. "You see the occasional high school boy stealing back to that section."

Graves did relate a story of a woman who came into the store last fall as part of a treasure hunt looking for relationship books. At the end of her citywide search, her boyfriend proposed to her.

"That's a pretty romantic thing."

Yes, it is. So maybe Columbia is a romantic place. As a way of finding out for sure, I checked with some other purveyors of romance: florists, jewelers, restaurateurs, and lingerie salespeople.

"Columbia? Shut up!" said Mary Beth Holman, owner of Mary Beth's Boutique on Main Street. "That's cool, but it's pretty funny."

Kristy Ray, who owns Tullulah, a lingerie shop on Devine Street, had a similar reaction.

"That is kind of odd to me. It's not something I would have expected, but it's neat to know that," Ray said. "I don't believe people think of Columbia when they think of romance."

But Ray, whose business is having a special Men's Night until 7:30 tonight with drinks and snacks to help guys out, came up with a theory on the high ranking.

"People in Columbia like where they live. A city is only as romantic as the people who live in it. Maybe we're all happy to be with each other," she said.

Ricky Mollohan sees the romantic side of Columbia -- especially this time of year, when two of his restaurants, Mr. Friendly's in Five Points and Solstice in Northeast Richland, are packed.

But even throughout the rest of the year, Mollohan estimates that 75 percent of his business is made up of couples.

"That's probably higher than a lot of other cities," he said.

Tom Birchmore, the owner of Gudmundson and Buyck jewelers on Devine, got a chuckle out of the ranking.

"We're coming on strong," he said.

Roger Patton, owner of The Blossom Shop in Five Points, likes being ranked in this way.

"At least we're near the top of something good," said Patton, who asked where Charleston was on the list.

The Holy City?

Nowhere to be found. Apparently, Charleston isn't nearly as romantic as it thinks it is.

Patton expects to see plenty of romantics on Thursday.

"They'll be lined up to the door from 10 in the morning to five in the afternoon," he said, as they wait for the old reliable. "You cannot go wrong with roses. That's the bottom line."

Columbia's bottom line on romance is looking better, too. And the providers of passion are looking to keep it that way.

"I'm telling you. I'll see what I can do to improve it," said Holman, whose boutique is holding a Valentine's trunk show that will keep love in the air until Friday.

Graves may have to stock up on even more romantic books.

"We'll see if we can crack the Top 10 next year," he said.

Birchmore hopes his jewelry sales can put us over the top.

"Don't stop until we're No. 1."

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