Interview conducted by PTM’s own, Marleigh Green.

I sat down with Leah Koch, one of the two owners of The Ripped Bodice bookstore, an independent brick-and-mortar bookstore that is proudly Woman and Queer-Owned. 

Sisters and owners Leah and Bea Koch opened TRB in Los Angeles, CA on March 4, 2016 following a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring their dream of a romance-only bookstore to life.

The Ripped Bodice features a vast and diverse selection of romance fiction. In addition to books, the store has a wide selection of gift items with a focus on supporting independent, woman-owned businesses.

Q: You raised money for The Ripped Bodice via Kickstarter. What was it like to start your business using crowdfunding?

Leah: It was stressful, but it was also amazing, in that you’re able to bypass traditional funding models and go straight to who will be your eventual customer base. I say it’s stressful because as opposed to opening a business and having that be the first time that people interact with it, it was a theoretical business and the whole internet gets to have an opinion on it before it even exists. In general, I’m a big proponent of crowdfunding because it opens up access to people who need investment but aren’t able to reach investors. 

Q: What initially got you and your sister interested in reading romance? 

Leah: It’s mainly luck. We were big readers and grew up in a house that really emphasized reading. However, our mom wasn’t a romance reader; nobody in our family was. But we had bookstores. We used to go as a family every couple of weeks, and when we were old enough to be set loose, my older sister was the one who sort of wandered into the romance section after searching for historical fiction. She got totally hooked, and I had the more traditional experience of her sharing them with me or, more likely, me stealing them from her. 

Q: I love that your parents emphasized the importance of reading. Did it matter to them that you both got into romance?

Leah: Luckily our parents had no issue with what we wanted to read, as long as we were reading. Romance was really accessible, we could buy them for 25 cents at garage sales so we totally devoured them. As an adolescent, I was drawn to the focus the books had on people’s inner emotional lives. They’re mainly about ordinary people, and I think when you’re a teenager and becoming an adult is so insane and terrifying, reading these books made us feel like our lives would be important. We just never looked back!

Q: Can you remember the first romance book you read that made you really passionate about the genre?

Leah: I don’t remember the actual first one ever, but the first one I have strong memories of is Nora Roberts’s Bride Quartet. I remember it being one of the first really formative series that stuck out to me. I loved that the characters continued in other books and I still reread it all of the time. It was based on a really utopian idea of living in a commune with your childhood friends and featured really strong female friendships at the center. Each book is a romance but all of them are such important parts of each other’s lives. I loved the payoff of getting to the final book and the characters getting their happy endings. It holds up pretty well. 

Q: Are you a writer yourself or just a book enthusiast?

Leah: No desire to write, but I’m very impressed by those who do! I’m in the exact right position at the end of the publishing food chain. My sister writes, though. She put out a book a couple of years ago called Mad and Bad, which is about the real women who inspired romance novels.

Q: There are so many fun romance tropes we see in different novels. Enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, etc. Which is your favorite, and why?

Leah: Yes, I have many favorites. I would say forced proximity a.k.a. “there’s only one bed” is a big favorite of mine. Just because at this point, it’s the ultimate trope to me. They’re on a road trip, there’s a hotel, and you just know there’ll be only one bed. I also really like childhood friends reunited years later, and I think there’s something really sweet about that one. So those are my two picks. 

Q: The Ripped Bodice is the first romance-centric bookstore opened in the United States. How did it feel to make history with the opening of your business?

Leah: It’s a little hard to say! I was thinking about this and within the last four months there’ve been three or four openings of romance-centric bookstores. We’re getting to a point where I won’t be able to count on two hands how many there are. It’s a remarkable shift to me, and I guess the answer to how I feel is pride. I’m proud and excited to see how the landscape continues to develop. 

Q: If you could go back in time and give yourself advice when you started this venture, what would it be?

Leah: I recognize that the specific circumstances and choices we made at that time were the best we could do, and they led us to where we are today. So the first thing I’d say is “find more money” because we spent almost every penny we had, so our bank accounts were pretty low on opening day. But we didn’t have any more money, so we made it work with what we had. There’s a benefit to not waiting for the perfect moment, because otherwise, you’re never going to do it!

Q: That advice applies to writing too, that there’s never a perfect moment, so I love that. The topic of romance, particularly romance involving smut, can be sensitive for people. Romance is a genre that’s often dismissed as frivolous by the larger market. What would you say to someone who’s interested in reading romance, but is maybe put off by how it’s perceived by other people?

Leah: Well the flippant answer is “stop caring what other people think.” The more serious answer is consider the stories you’ve been told about romance novels and consider the source and what biases they might have. Because I think that when most people are able to unpack the stories they’ve been told about romance, they realize there’s so much internalized misogyny and sex negativity. 

Q: I do think misogyny is the main root of it, this idea of things that are women-centric or women-oriented being seen as shallow or frivolous.

Leah: It’s hard to remember where it came from but often it’s someone being dismissive of what their mom or aunt was reading. I think the more we can unpack those stories we’ve been told, the better off we’ll be. Younger generations are better about this, and in general when things are beloved by women and young women and it’s dismissed as lame and uncool, it’s more about the misogyny than the actual thing itself. I encourage people to unpack that. As long as you don’t believe romance shouldn’t be for other people even if it’s not for you, then I have no beef with that. There’s a romance for pretty much everything. There’s very little risk in giving it a try. 

Q: Unlike many larger retailers, you accept books from indie authors. Was this something you set out to do when you came up with the idea for the store, or something you decided along the way?

Leah: Both. We discovered 8 years ago that most of the books written by POC and queer people were self-published, because the industry has historically shut them out, and it was important to us to represent diverse authors. It’s improved, but not as much as we’d like.

Q: That is such an important point to make, and it’s a great motivator for offering the option to self-published authors to shelve their books in your store.

Leah: A lot of bookstores don’t carry self-pubbed books because they’re not returnable and you make less money. However, to me, those things are worth it. And, a lot of people still have the notion that a self-published book wasn’t good enough to get traditionally published. It’s very different in romance when you consider the long long history of POC and queer people being kept out of trad pub. These books are often very high quality, it has to do more with racism and homophobia that they aren’t represented in publishing. We knew when we set out to do this that if we wanted to support those authors; that’s a compromise we are happy to make. 

Q: The Ripped Bodice now has two locations, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast. Do you have any plans for expansion at this stage? If so, where would you like to open the next one, and why?

Leah: Well we’ve only been open in Brooklyn for 4 months, but there are various places on the list. It’s so flattering that so many want us to come to their city, but cannot confirm or deny any particulars! 

Q: Okay, I swear I won’t press you to tell me where next, but do you have an idea of when?

Leah: There’s no official confirmed timeline, but we waited 7 years between opening stores 1 and 2, and we probably won’t wait that long for number 3!