“We wanted a lot of light in the space,” says Bea Koch from one of the baroque, Victorian couches that form a makeshift living room in the center of the Ripped Bodice, America’s sole romance-only bookstore, which she owns with her sister Leah. “Romance is hidden a lot, and this store is not hiding anything.”
The high-ceilinged space is located behind an unapologetically pink storefront in downtown Culver City, and contains dozens of surprisingly specific subgenres of romance and erotica, curated and organized for its audience. Chicago natives Bea and Leah Koch, sisters who opened the shop on March 4, 2016, after raising more than $90,000 on Kickstarter, conceived of the Ripped Bodice as a safe, sex-positive, feminist space where fans of the genre (or the romance-curious) can browse and commune without fear of feeling judged — something they’ve encountered in general-interest bookstores.
The Kochs are not only devoted, voracious romance readers themselves, but astute observers and critics of its routine, often out-of-hand dismissal.
“No other genre has to defend itself as much as we do,” says Leah. At 24, she is the younger, and wears a sprig of small white flowers behind her ear. Bea, 27, in clear-framed glasses, pets Fitzwilliam Waffles, a one-eyed rescue dog of possibly Pomeranian stock lounging on the cushion between them. (Fitzwilliam, if you’ll recall, is Mr. Darcy’s first name.) “It extends beyond just what romance novelists are writing. It’s also about how they present themselves,” Bea says, “and how they’re seen in the larger literary world as this kind of side show.”
Not so at the Ripped Bodice, where romance is the main event. Historical romance, shelved chronologically by the era in which the book is set, includes Georgian, Regency and Gilded Age; contemporary houses cowboys, suspense and “bikers and tats”; there are sections for LGTBQ and romances in Spanish; a “romance…