Leah and Bea Koch’s dream of having a romance bookstore is now a bustling reality
With its bubblegum pink building and ornate gold signposts, The Ripped Bodice—billed as the West Coast’s only romance bookstore—is unapologetically in your face. The Culver City store’s interior is just as bold, cluttered with vintage velvet couches, posters plastered with messages of intersectional feminism and a pink refrigerator parked by the cash register.
When you enter, it’s obvious that the store is shamelessly made to indulge women and make them feel safe: the antique desk by the front door is covered in feminist book club flyers that list out various bell hooks and Maragret Atwood novels; the bathroom is stocked with tampons, diapers and hair ties; and the art, merchandise and books are almost all created by women.
Even the store’s name evokes a sense of resistance to the patriarchy: a “bodice” is a restricting and tight, waist-length garment worn over a dress or as underwear. If a bodice is ripped, a woman is free from constraints and behaves accordingly.
Culver City’s romance haven
The Ripped Bodice opened in March of 2016 by sisters Leah and Bea Koch and is a manifestation of their love for the romance genre.
“We love romance novels, it’s our favorite genre and the majority of the books we read before we opened,” Leah Koch says via email. “We wanted to build the bookstore we most wanted to see in the world.”
According to an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the Koch sisters got the idea for The Ripped Bodice after realizing that the only romance bookstore in the world was in Australia. They then started a Kickstarter campaign and were eventually able to raise $90,000.
“Our bookstore is such a positive space, and people are always really excited to visit, so it’s an exciting place to work, Koch says. “We love sharing that special moment with people.”
It’s obvious that the Koch sisters have put so much of themselves into the bookstore. Their childhood photos and handwritten recommendation notes (complete with hearts dotting the “i’s”) fill up the baroque-style bookshelves. Leah Koch wanders around the store, checking in on each customer and smiling uncontrollably when one of them asks for a recommendation or opinion.
Rewriting romance literature’s narrative
The sisters have an undeniable connection to their work. However, they’re still aware of the stigma that romance literature is made for sad, desperate women, as well as the critics who say that the genre is often sexist, heteronormative and patriarchal.
“[Critics] aren’t reading current romance. This is an old stereotype, which was never actually true. Women have always been pushing against those boundaries in romance,” Koch defends. “Romance is about people finding happy endings, whatever that might look like to them.”
In fact, even studios are taking notice. According to a 2018 interview from Entertainment Weekly, the Kochs signed a contract partnering with Sony Pictures to make romance-related projects for television to further their mission of showcasing modern romance to audiences.
Longtime customer Ann Marie Baraja agrees with Koch. As she stands in line clutching books ready to be signed by romance author Karina Halle, she smiles as she reflects on how “happy and positive” the genre is. She excitedly speaks about its tropes and characters and confidently outlines her belief that there is in fact, an intersection between romance literature and feminism.
“I just love the happily-ever-afters,” Baraja says. “So many of the books that The Ripped Bodice carries have strong female characters—no ‘damsel in distress’ situations and nowadays, romance books portray partnerships and true, equal love.”
If you're just joining us…
— The Ripped Boo-dice 👻 (@TheRippedBodice) November 10, 2020
Investing in happily ever after
Fellow customer Meredith Hoog also appreciates what The Ripped Bodice does to reclaim and reframe romance literature into material for the modern woman.
“Most other romance books and movies that are featured in other stores are from a male gaze, but when I come in here, I can escape from all that and read books written from a female point of view,” Hoog says.
She goes on to explain that she also appreciates all the work The Ripped Bodice does to help other women.
“This is a female-owned business, and they’re supporting other [businesses] like theirs,” Hoog says. “This store provides a great opportunity for men and women who shop here to see what women can do.”
Romance author Karina Halle, who did a book signing at The Ripped Bodice last Saturday, also praised the store for creating a space where romance literature is proudly showcased.
“Romance is always hidden,” Halle says. “People are so ashamed to talk about it, but it’s the bestselling genre. As far as I know, The Ripped Bodice is the only store in the United States that has shamelessly embraced romance and built a business around it.”
Halle declares her love for the romance genre and reasons that it’s a malleable genre in which the author can take you down several different paths. However no matter what, the reader has comfort and solace in the fact that there will be a happy ending.
“You know you’re guaranteed to have a smile on your face,” Halle says. “In this world right now, we need to know that everything is going to be okay, so I think romance is comforting and soothing to a lot of people, including me.”