I’m not sure how I first discovered romance, but I distinctly remember being a pre-teen and teenager devouring first Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz novels, then the likes of Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz and Judith McNaught. I mainly bought them at the bookstore at the local mall, Waldenbooks, and my obsession felt like a singular one; I didn’t know anyone else who read romance, though clearly I wasn’t the only one judging by its plentiful offerings on the bookstore shelves. I was never ashamed to read romance, but I wondered exactly who my fellow readers were, and whether I had anything in common with them.
That’s part of why I was so thrilled to learn that crowdfunded romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice was opening in Culver City, California. Run by sisters Bea and Leah Koch, it opened in March and has been off and running. I interviewed the owners when they were running their Kickstarter, and as an erotica author and editor, I was especially impressed by their commitment to the genre as part of romance and devotion to making the store inclusive in every sense of the word. In our interview, they told me:
“The romance section at a mainstream bookstore is organized alphabetically, but we will organize by subgenre. We’ll be able to direct you specifically to the paranormal-witches section or the modern cowboys section. We will definitely have romantic suspense (it’s the best selling subgenre!) as well as a great erotica section.”
I got to see a sneak preview of the store when I was in the Los Angeles area before it opened, and what impressed me the most was the attention to detail they’ve given every aspect of the store, intent on making it a welcoming environment whether you’ve been reading romance for decades or never have. There are couches to sit on and room to simply marvel at all the types of romances available, from mainstream and independent publishers and self-published authors. Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books revealed when she interviewed them for the Dear Bitches, Smart Author podcast that when she saw her novella on their shelves, it was the first time she’d seen it print. As someone who cried tears of joy the first time I saw my words in an anthology on a bookstore’s shelves, I can appreciate the feeling.
I also love how enthusiastic the Kochs are about romance and reading. I gave them a few book suggestions, including one of my favorite recent YA reads, Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, and they not only read them but told me how much they enjoyed them.
You need only look at their Instagram account to see just how passionate they are about the romance genre. This is clearly not just a job to the founders; it’s a dream job that’s been fostered precisely by readers who are hungry for such an offering, for a place where romance is treated with as much respect, passion and keen interest as any other genre of writing.
In a recent profile of The Ripped Bodice at Racked, Bea said, “In a normal bookstore, you don’t know what the reaction you’re going to get is when you ask for a romance novel. It can be quite rude, and also a little scary! It’s frequently a sexist, kinda-gross leer. Like, ‘Oh, you like that stuff?’”
I’m pretty sure that if you’re reading Lady Smut, you’ve experienced this. Beyond the fact that the store stocks thousands of romance novels across subgenres, to me the real highlight of such a store is simply making romance more accepted and accessible. Anyone who passes by the store will know that romance isn’t a flash in the pan, something that of course any romance reader or book publishing observer has been aware of for years, but that the average person might not be aware of.
They’re also building a community, with events including book signings, a book club, standup comedy that promises “Funny people. Sexy books. Free wine” (coming up next week, April 21st, for you locals) and a Mother’s Day tea.
In our interview, they told me “The Ripped Bodice is not only a bookstore. We are a gathering place for a community of intelligent, opinionated men and women. We have so much to offer beyond just books.” Indeed, being a community space is something many independent bookstores strive for—that was a key point Linda-Marie Barrett, general manager of Asheville, North Carolina’s Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café made in her recent New York Times op-ed urging authors not to cancel their appearances at the store because of the state’s discriminatory anti-LGBT law. With romance, it’s even more important because there aren’t that many offline spaces where that kind of community can thrive, where you can talk about the nuances of romance without all kinds of problematic assumptions being made about you.
Brick and mortar bookstores aren’t just places to purchase books; they are places where readers can go to explore, browse, discuss, dream. If there are entire bookstores dedicated to mystery, why shouldn’t there be more dedicated to the most popular genre around? As someone who lives in a suburban town where the nearest bookstore is a giant chain, I am deeply jealous of those who are in close proximity to The Ripped Bodice. Yes, we can all order books online, but what we can’t get from an online bookstore is a personal recommendation, a friendly smile, shelves arranged with the artful care, attention to detail and customer service a store like this offers. If I lived nearby, what I would welcome more than anything else is to simply soak up the atmosphere of such a store, before pulling a beloved book from a shelf and asking “What else do you have like this?”
They also stock LGBT romances, young adult, new adult, Christmas and Hannukah romances, and much more. I would imagine that even if you’re a very specific type of romance reader, the lure of browsing such a wide selection would cause you to at least consider titles you wouldn’t have sought out on your own, which is precisely the joy of such a store. Because they were readers first, the Koch sisters enthusiasm for romance bursts out from both their social media. They are also a wonderful counterpoint to any romance skeptics or haters, or those who insist that “print books are dead,” a phrase that makes me want to scream.
They also have an e-commerce section of their website for those who can’t get to the store, including shirts with some very powerful messages, like “Smart girls read romance” and “I am the heroine of my own story.” How awesome is that?
I am looking for an excuse to head back to Southern California and gorge on books at The Ripped Bodice, and am so proud that the girl I once was, who combed my local bookstores, randomly guessing which titles might be up my alley and devoured those early romances now has books with my name on them lining this romance mecca’s shelves.