The ripped bodice


- Words Kate Stanton

The books lining the shelves of The Ripped Bodice bookstore in Culver City, Los Angeles, tell stories of characters as varied as time-travelling punk rockers, gay hockey players, aristocrat­s with autism, and even shape-shifting honey badgers. They have one thing in common, though: everyone gets a happily ever after. The ‘HEA’, as it’s known in romance parlance, is a non-negotiable tenet of the genre. It’s one of the reasons sisters and store owners Bea and Leah Koch fell in love with romance novels. “There’s something really appealing about the notion that whoever or whatever you are, you’re worthy of your own love story,” says Leah, who digs contempora­ry tales of romance, especially about queer folks like herself. Leah and Bea were 22 and 24 in 2016 when they opened The Ripped Bodice, the country’s first all-romance bookstore. In the US, romance makes more money than any other genre, but it’s usually bumped to the back of a bookshop, if sold at all. Growing up, Bea had to hunt for secondhand romance novels, before handing them off to her sister or friends. “I was the romance novel dealer in our high school,” she says. A huge fan of the historical romance subgenre (think Outlander or Bridgerton), she admits, “I was looking for historical stories that were sexier and more interestin­g than historical fiction.”

Bea, Leah and their pals mostly gravitated towards these books because they centred the feelings of women and queer people. According to Bea, though, older male bookstore owners would make “snotty or even gross comments” about their reading tastes. “As we got older, we became more aware of the lack of respect that romance gets in the larger literary world,” Leah adds. “A lot of bookstores look down on romance and don’t want to carry it, even though it makes a lot of money.” The sisters put the stigma down to misogyny: things enjoyed primarily by women are often deemed less worthy or intellectu­al. Plus, there’s the obvious: romance novels usually (though not always) feature sex as an important part of an unfolding love story. “There’s so much shame around sexuality in general, but in particular, female sexuality,” Bea says. To combat that shame, the pair wanted to create a space that was unapologet­ically feminist and proudly in love with… love. After crowdfundi­ng US$90,000 on Kickstarte­r, they opened The Ripped Bodice to gung-ho support from the romance-reading community. “Right off the bat people were so on board, because romance didn’t have anything like it at the time,” Leah says. (Another romance-focused store, Love’s Sweet Arrow, opened in Chicago in 2019.)

The store’s name is a play on the ‘bodice-ripper’ pejorative for historical romance novels – the ones that traditiona­lly feature buff blokes and swooning heroines. “It was in line with our lack of shame around reading romance,” Bea says. “This isn’t some secret we have to hide. We’re proud. We have a pink storefront.” Decked out with family photos and whimsical book art displays, The Ripped Bodice also hosts panels and sells rad romance swag. (Trope Tea, for example, is inspired by beloved romance clichés like ‘there’s only one bed’ and ‘childhood friend is hot now’.) Bea and Leah also compile an annual Racial Diversity in Romance report as part of an effort to highlight the industry’s lack of traditiona­lly published books by BIPOC authors. Recently, they locked in a deal with Sony Pictures, who reached out for help identifyin­g books for telly adaptation­s. After five years in the booksellin­g biz – not to mention a global pandemic – Bea and Leah have learnt that folks are hungrier than ever for happily ever afters. “It’s something people have always craved, especially when there’s some sort of upheaval,” Leah says. “Romance books let us explore a lot of complicate­d issues without everyone dying at the end. The promise of that happy ending brings comfort to so many people.”

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