Let’s clear up some misconceptions about romance novels. The worst ones, according to Leah Koch, co-owner of The Ripped Bodice bookstore, are “that they are trashy. That they’re only read by lonely old spinsters. That they’re bad.”
Well, they are not trashy, they are read by all sorts of folks, and they are good.
Leah and her sister Bea would know: They started The Ripped Bodice, the first romance-only bookstore in North America. (They used to be the only one, until Love’s Sweet Arrow opened outside Chicago in June 2019.)
In 2015, the Jewish sisters started fundraising on Kickstarter for their dream bookstore — eventually raising $91,187 of their $90,000 goal. In the spring of 2016, they opened The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California. The name comes from Bea’s graduate thesis — “Mending the Ripped Bodice,” on how fashion is used in historical romance novels.
Bea (left) and Leah (right) with their dog, Fitzwilliam Waffles D.D.S., ESQ.
From a young age, both Leah and Bea knew they loved romance novels.
“I think for each of us it was around age 12 or 13,” Leah tells Alma in an interview over e-mail. “It’s such a volatile time in your life — and here is [an] entire genre of books centered around the inner lives of women telling you that your dreams and emotions have value.” Which is such a beautiful way of describing the romance genre: centered around the inner lives of women, validating their dreams and feelings.
Leah and Bea were raised Jewish. (Bea still identifies as Jewish; Leah now identifies as atheist.)
“We were raised in a moderately observant Reform Jewish household. We were both bat mitzvahed and went to Hebrew school and Sunday school until we were teenagers. We celebrated all the major holidays with our quite large extended family, with lots and lots of good food. Our mother came from a small southern town where they were literally the only Jews, so I think she felt very strongly that she wanted to maintain her traditions with her children,” Leah tells Alma.
I had been following the bookstore on Twitter for a while — their account, @TheRippedBodice, is really worth your time — and didn’t realize they were Jewish until Yom Kippur, when Bea tweeted about not fasting.
Wishing everyone who is fasting an easy fast ❤️
And reminding us all (including myself!) that some people can’t or shouldn’t fast for health reasons and we should respect that ❤️
— The Ripped Boo👻dice (@TheRippedBodice) October 9, 2019
I asked Leah how they decide what parts of their identity to share online.
“Like everything we share online, it’s pretty organic,” she explained. “Being personal and authentic is part of our mission and sometimes religion is a part of that. The romance community can be very, very Christian so we do feel a responsibility to make sure that people know that other religions are welcome. We try to tweet about a lot of non-Christian holidays, retweeting romance authors who are celebrating holidays that are different then what we celebrate.”
Leah continued, “In the case of this specific fasting question, Bea has a medical condition that means she can’t fast. I was really happy she shared that because religion can feel so unwelcoming sometimes if you can’t practice it exactly the way it’s typically done so it’s nice to share with others that it can be whatever works for you.”
Their social media is a key part of growing their business — social media is essential to most businesses these days — and their Twitter is just a wonderful place to be.
“From the start, we made it a point to be super authentic and to be a bit more personal then most business accounts are. Our store is extremely personal for us. We didn’t have any employees for almost two years, so it was just us doing literally everything. I think people connected to that hustle and drive and were rooting for us to succeed,” Leah says.
It’s hard to explain just how good they are at social media. They even have an Instagram account for their “bookstore dog” named Fitzwilliam Waffles, who was mentioned in the Washington Post. Their Patreon levels are “Fitz’s Fans,” “Fitz’s Friends,” and “Fitz’s Family.”
Okay, okay, one more Fitz photo:
Why did the sisters decide to go into business together? Leah explains: “it just made perfect sense.”
She continued, “You need someone you have complete trust in, and for us that is each other. We have always gotten along super well and wanted to actually hang out with each other as adults. We hear from a lot of customers who think it’s crazy.”
More recently, they’re starting to expand beyond just books. Last year, they signed a deal with Sony Pictures to develop television projects based on romance novels. And in September, they announced they would be selling “Trope Teas,” four different flavors of tea with funny names based off common themes in romance novels. Right now, the flavors offered are: “Gotta Find a Wife to Inherit That Green” (a green tea with orange peel), “There’s Only One Bed” (earl grey and elderflower), “This Kiss Was Only Supposed To Be Instructive” (hibiscus), and “My Childhood Friend is Hot Now” (raspberry black).
As Leah tweeted, “2 years ago for Hannukah, Bea made each member of our family their own custom tea blend based on their specific taste (I was very berry FYI). Since then, she has been getting better and better at blending her own tea.”
Her favorite romance trope? “My childhood friend is hot now.”
In addition to blending teas, they also host author readings, events, sell swag (duh), and host charitable drives. During Hanukkah last year, they hosted the brilliantly named “Tamponukkah,” a menstrual product drive for homeless shelters.
This December, get your charity on and join The Ripped Bodice for Eight Crazy Nights of Tamponukkah: A Menstrual Products Drive! Our goal is to collect 100+ brand new boxes of period products (pads, tampons & pantyliners) to donate to local LA homeless shelters. pic.twitter.com/EAM6SPYnN2
— The Ripped Boo👻dice (@TheRippedBodice) December 5, 2018
“Tamponukkah was actually one of our booksellers Amy’s idea. She noted that menstrual products are the number one request from homeless shelters. She also gets full credit for the name,” Leah says. “The first year went so much better then we ever imagined. The front of the store was flooded with boxes of product (which made for a very funny visual).” They’re planning on doing it again this year.
One thing that is probably not typical of booksellers: Leah and Bea publish an annual “State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report.” The study “tracks the publication of books written by authors of color and indigenous peoples in the romance genre.” As they wrote at the start of the 2018 report, “The romance genre prides itself on being a feminist haven where women writers have finally found a place to express positive stories that center female experiences. We continue to be stunned by the blatant hypocrisy of a community that insists upon uplifting only a certain kind of woman, both between the pages and in real life.” (You can read 2018’s report in full here. There are some great graphs.)
In terms of diversity, On Alma, we published Stacey’s list of her favorite Jewish romance novels. Leah told us that the list was wonderful, and “it is so heartening to see a growing group of Jewish romance authors finding success.” Also? “I have personally been dying for Sara Taylor Woods to write another book.” (Sara: You heard it here first!)
My last question for Leah: What’s your favorite love story right now? “I mean, you truly cannot do better than Harry and Megan these days, can you!? It’s better than an author could possibly script it!”
All photos by Jenn LeBlanc.