What does true love look like to you? Does the story start when boy meets girl? Or is it when girl meets girl? How about boy meets vampire? Or girl meets leather-clad biker? Whatever your fancy, The Ripped Bodice has a book for you. Unlike many brick and mortar bookstores—which sometimes fail to have so much as a shelf devoted to romance—The Ripped Bodice is an entire store showcasing the single genre.
“For so long, romance readers have been told they don’t deserve space; we’re here to take up some space for the genre we love,” Bea Koch explained about the inception of her shop in California. Bea, along with her sister, Leah Koch, own and staff the store (with the help of the resident dog, Fitzwilliam Waffles), located just outside of LA in Culver City. While The Ripped Bodice isn’t the only all-romance bookstore in the world, it does have the distinction of being the only of its kind in the United States (to get to another bookstore like this one, you’d have to travel to Canberra, Australia). Longtime fans of the genre, Bea and Leah knew they wanted to open a store to fill the void they saw in most bookshops, and so they launched a Kickstarter campaign in November 2015, rapidly raising more than $91,000. Maybe the lesson that can be taken away from their wildly successful crowd-sourcing efforts (and the opening of The Ripped Bodice very shortly after that) is this: Romance is a juggernaut of a niche that should be taken a bit more seriously.
Literary Romance in Numbers
In fact, last year romance brought in 1.1 billion in sales, and that’s only in traditionally published, paper formats. Romance buffs are famously voracious readers, too—in 2015, 46 percent of romance buyers read an average of one book a week according to Bookstats. That’s a dedicated fan base—and a whole lot of money—for a genre that has long been maligned and brushed off as “not for serious readers.” Taking aim at that misjudgment, the motto of The Ripped Bodice is “Smart Girls Read Romance.”
“Lawyers, doctors, professors—they all read romance!” Bea conjectured. “I don’t understand the desire to put romance down; you’re so behind the times if you do. Let’s celebrate strong, smart women and let them make their reading choices.” Adding to that thought, Leah posited that because the genre is dominated by women—as both writers and readers—that the notion of romance being dumbed-down literature is an artifact of patriarchal thinking. “That assumption is perpetuated by men,” she surmised.
Lessons for Women of All Ages
Both sisters feel that we stand to lose a lot by writing off the thousands of writers—and the thousands of various works—that comprise modern romance sections. When readers have put off the genre, particularly young readers, they may be missing out on vital lessons that are often hard to divine from other media. Let’s face it—intimacy in its many shapes is rarely uncomplicated. “Romance has so much to teach us about what healthy sex and relationships look like,” Leah offered. To that end, you won’t find Fifty Shades of Gray in the aisles of The Ripped Bodice, but you will find an array of books that depict consensual relationships that are healthy both psychologically and physically. “It can be really hard to find concrete examples of things that are taught … in sex-ed. … Romance novels can provide the script,” she proposed. A frame of reference is provided in a host of flavors at The Ripped Bodice. They have four main sub-genres in-store (already, of course, under the umbrella of romance), these are contemporary, historical, paranormal and erotica. Under each of these are many more categories, like young adult, American historical, LGBTQ and “bikes + tats” (“One of our most popular,” Leah confided).
Bea and Leah attribute the success of The Ripped Bodice to their concert effort to curate the store with vetted, high-quality material. In turn, they can recommend reads to visitors who don’t know where to begin (they even offer Romance 101 starter kits) or are looking for something quite particular. The sisters have instituted a “no blinks” policy, meaning that whatever a customer is seeking, they do their best to point them in the right direction with zero judgment. In short, the space is liberated from many of the prevailing judgments of society as a whole, and that contributes to the success of their business as well. “Unfortunately, the romance community is used to the outside world treating them with bemusement or sometimes open hostility,” Bea offered, to which Leah added, “I think romance readers had been waiting a long time for their own store.”
The sort of refuge that The Ripped Bodice provides for romance readers is in perfect symmetry with what readers everywhere cherish so much about their books, regardless of genre—that they present an escape from the trials and tedium of the real world. Romance, in particular, provides something that many genres do not—hopeful final chapters. “I think for both of us it has always been about the happy ending,” Leah said. “
The world is such a chaotic place; there is something really comforting about knowing things are going to work out.” For these two romance readers turned entrepreneurs, things certainly did.