"How steamy do you want it to be?"
In most bookstores, romance novels are modestly hidden in the back shelves: Not at “The Ripped Bodice”, a very special interest store in Downtown Culver City. Here, under a whimsical display of “flying” books, there is nothing else so see and read but more than 7000 passionate stories of love & lust. Sisters Bea and Leah Koch from Chicago opened “The Ripped Bodice” – they took the title of Bea’s NYU literature thesis – a year and a half ago (younger sister Leah, 23, a visual arts undergraduate of USC, decorated the store).
Before sitting down with us on a velvet Victorian settee, Bea, 26, gives a tour of the store: Historic novels are in the front, contemporary fiction – the ones with Fabio chests! – you will find in bookcases along the wall, in the back there is a “paranormal” section as well as the exquisitely stocked erotica department (from “50 Shades of Grey” to anything with any appeal to the LGBTQ community). Nora Roberts, queen bee of the genre, has her own altar in the middle; also there are shelves full of non-fiction titles like comedian Amy Schumer’s autobiography and, for the occasional uneasy costumer, "high literature" by female writers like Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”).
Bea pets a one-eyed Pomeranian, store mascot Fitz, who is named after Fitzwilliam Darcy – Mr. Darcy of “Pride and Prejudice” fame, of course. Yep, Jane Austen’s force is strong in this “Ripped Bodice”.
You opened your first business with tremendous help from Kickstarter: You raised $ 91.000. What was your selling point?
Bea: We both love romance, and we know the genre is immensely popular. Sadly, readers are not treated well by most book stores. When you ask for romance, people look down on you. So we wanted to fight that stereotype and at the same time be a part of the bookstore community.
Leah: And now, business is pretty much going steadily up.
Bea: We have got a big binder: “How to open a bookstore”. Thanks to community financing, we were able to open the store without a huge amount of debt.
Leah: Also, our father is super supportive. He understands money.
Bea: He wanted us to be entrepreneurial.
Leah: Now “The Ripped Bodice” is the only romance bookstore not only in L.A., but in the whole country!
You are located on Main Street in Culver City. A lot of hip companies have moved to the neighborhood. How are the rents?
Bea: It’s expensive, but it’s not as expensive as Venice.
Leah: It’s basically the coolest neighborhood that we can afford. Did you notice, “Dry Bar” is next door, also “The Massage Garage”... it’s pretty girly over here.
Bea: Our landlord actually helped to get the blowout hair salon next to us. Because he thought we would be good partners. It’s a really supportive community.
Leah: And we got to be part of it: We just started writing groups, workshops, book clubs...
Bea: ...and stuff like comedy night. So we try to engage the community, even if they are not big romance readers.
We thought you picked L.A. as a location because the city is especially prone to romance?!
Leah: Haha, no, I just lived here. But we knew we needed to be in a big city like Chicago, or New York, or Los Angeles, since we were going to have a very specific product.
Bea: We benefit from tourism. And L.A. is a big stop for book tours, many big authors come through.
Leah: We also have the movie industry, Sony Studios are right down the street. Producers come by, they want to know what’s going well, what’s been selling…
Bea: A big trend we see is the connection between historical romance and fantasy. Like “Game Of Thrones”, or “Outlander”. They are actually making a tv show right now based on a saga by Deborah Harkness, who happens to be a USC history professor. She wrote “A Discovery Of Witches”, it is about time traveling…
Leah: ...and witches.
Bea: And it was a big success in romance first.
Hm, witches, and science fiction, and Jane Austen, too – you claim a pretty big field for romance.
Bea: But romance is indeed very sub-genre based. Lots of little pockets! Some people read across all these pockets. And some stay with what they like. As a literary genre, romance is very trope based, meaning: people like to see their familiar themes. For instance: brother’s best friend…
Leah: Or friends for lovers…
Bea: Or enemies for lovers…
Leah: There can be variations…
Bea: But there just has to be a happy ending.
Leah: Always! If not, what’s the point?
Your customers are mostly women?
Leah: I’d say about 95 percent.
Bea: Though we have some very dedicated male customers as well. Some gay men. Some men who come with their wives or girlfriends to shop with them.
Leah: Agewise, I would say our typical customer is between 25 and 40. All kinds of professions, all kinds of socio-economic brackets…
Bea: We also have a kid’s corner.
Leah: I love when young customers come in, it is so much fun to recommend them books about great heroines and friendships. Very empowering.
Really? One could argue that romance gives its readers rather unrealistic expectations about love.
Bea: This is a sour point in our community – and so not true. Do people who love crime novels are being asked if they would want to go out with a murderer? Or if the killing spree in the books inspires them? We can distinguish reality from novels. I’m in a relationship, Leah is not. We are both happy. And in love with our dog.
Leah: Romances make you believe that a woman's pleasure is as important as a man's, and you deserve a partner who treats you with respect. Anything wrong with that?
What was the book that turned you into a romance aficionado?
Leah: I started reading romances when I was twelve. My first was probably something by Nora Roberts.
She published more than 200 novels. When asked what inspires her, she usually says: „An alcoholic beverage”.
Leah: Haha, we hear that a lot from our writers. They have a glass of wine before they write a sex scene.
How erotic do your books get? Borderline pornography?
Bea: When people are looking for a book, we always ask them: How steamy do you want it to be?
Leah: We have everything from Amish romance to S&M. From no sex at all to extremely explicit.
Bea: And we have sexual help books and guides. If they are interested in kink, yes, we can help with that, too. We have the Kamasutra. We have the theory of romance.
Leah: Sometimes they want really specific set-ups. One woman asked if we had anything were the mistress wins in the end over the wife.
Bea: But in general, I think the romance genre is expanding the definition of sexuality. We have so much amazing gay romance. Polyamorous romance, multiple partners, threesomes.
Nora Roberts claims that she is writing feminist fiction.
Bea: We are a feminist bookstore. It’s part of our mission.
Leah: We are extremely political.
Bea: We are anti-Trump, anti his administration. It’s part of what we do. We do fundraisers for candidates. We don’t think we can be a feminist, sex positive business and support this president.
Do you girls take any vacation time?
Bea: No, we don’t really have lives outside the bookstore at the moment. But that’s okay, we don’t need them yet.
Leah: We take a couple of days off here and there.
Bea: Mostly to attend other people’s weddings.