Gallery: Romance-exclusive bookstore highlights inclusive love stories

(Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

By Christine Kao

February 14, 2022 at 4:51 p.m.

Located on Main Street in Culver City, The Ripped Bodice is a queer- and woman-owned, romance-exclusive bookstore that greets customers with its bright pink facade and vibrant window display. On both its wooden sign and clear glass window, the slogan “A Romantic Bookstore” reads underneath the bookstore’s name.

The strong sense of neighborhood in downtown Culver City is what attracted Bea and Leah Koch, sisters and co-founders of The Ripped Bodice, to settle their establishment here.

Open books occupy the corner next to the front door of The Ripped Bodice, climbing up to its ceiling. Sharing the wall are framed news reports featuring the two owners. Flyers lay on the table while each table drawer is embellished with a placard honoring the drawer’s sponsor. The white square bookshelves, decorated with a rainbow flag, spotlights LGBTQ+ reads.

Leah Koch said she and her sister found the romance sections in general bookstores small or even absent. The idea of creating a space dedicated solely to romance that serves the genre’s readers then started to develop. For the first two years of their business, the sisters had to take care of the store without any extra help.

“The longer we’ve been here, the more we become part of our customers’ lives,” Leah Koch said.

Witnessing how customers’ lives unfolded over the past six years and seeing readers become friends through her store have been Leah Koch’s favorite aspects of operating The Ripped Bodice.

A childhood photo of Bea Koch (left) and Leah Koch (right) reading hangs on the wall surrounded by decorative book pages.

As a lifelong romance reader, Leah Koch said she was attracted to romance as a young person because it prioritizes people’s inner lives and validates readers’ emotions. She added that she finds comfort in reading romance and enjoys the emphasis it places on the portrayal of emotions.

“I love that I always know it’s going to have a happy ending,” Leah Koch said.

Leah Koch holds the book “Vision in White” by Nora Roberts, one of the major novelists who she said led her into the world of romance. Besides Roberts, Leah Koch said some of her favorite romance authors include New York Times Bestselling Authors Christina Lauren and Tessa Dare, as well as Beverly Jenkins, who writes Black historical novels, and Rebekah Weatherspoon, a local Los Angeles writer who Leah Koch met when she first opened the store.

In search of sapphic romance to brighten up her week, Jackie Rothmeier, who is visiting from Orange County, reaches for a book from the LGBTQ+ reads section.

“A good thing about places like this is, no matter what your interests are, or what kind of representation you are looking for, the people who work here have so many recommendations,” Rothmeier said.

As a lover of romance, Rothmeier said she recommends the work of British novelist Talia Hibbert.

Browsing a corner filled with books on spirituality, UCLA alumnus Lexi Van Ligten picks up Annabel Gat’s “The Astrology of Love & Sex: A Modern Compatibility Guide.” Van Ligten has been visiting the store since it first opened in 2016 and is now a part of its book club. She said she finds the club interesting because it introduces her to books from subgenres that she had not been familiar with, such as the fantasy graphic novel in her hand, “The Heart Hunter” written by Mickey George and illustrated by V. Gagnon.

As an intersectional feminist and a previous gender studies student, Van Ligten said she appreciates the inclusion of queer narratives and tales of different identities found in The Ripped Bodice.

Van Ligten added that the children’s books selection in the store resembles books released by the publishing company she now works as an editor for. Van Ligten said she appreciated and wished there had been as many stories of people of color, queer people and non-American people in the United States when she was growing up.

For UCLA students who may be familiar with the LA area, Van Ligten said she recommends the novel “Malibu Rising” by author Taylor Jenkins Reid as it mentions specific sites around Malibu. Van Ligten said an all-time favorite of hers is Anthony Doerr’s novel “All the Light We Cannot See.”

Five rows of “Books for Young Feminists” were curated and highlighted on the right side of the bookstore. Leah Koch said the process of selecting books for The Ripped Bodice was half scientific-based and half artistic-based. The science of selecting books involves analyzing sales figures of authors’ previous books. This approach is often adopted when deciding whether to include new releases by writers who have been active for years. Leah Koch added that when ordering books by new authors, the covers and back descriptions of a book become the defining factors.

To the opposite side of the children’s books, a poetry collection is displayed on a brown shelf. “Call Us What We Carry” and “The Hill We Climb,” both written by Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet of the U.S., are featured at the front of the display.

Discussing the deliberate book organization of The Ripped Bodice, Leah Koch said they separate books by specific subgenres instead of collecting all romance in one section as typical bookstores do, allowing customers to navigate the store and find their targets more easily.

Graduate education student Brande Otis shares and discusses the book “The Astrology of Love & Sex: A Modern Compatibility Guide” with another customer. Having visited the bookstore in the past and finding it charming, Otis came back to discover more lighthearted and uplifting romance novels.

A white-painted shelf is dedicated to the store’s Blind Date With a Book activity, in which books are gift wrapped and labeled with descriptions on each “HELLO My Name Is” sticker. Instead of judging a book by its cover, customers decide whether to purchase a book based on the piece of information given by the store. Leah Koch said this activity has become one of The Ripped Bodice’s most popular features.

Other notable features of the store include hosting online and in-person book events to build an accessible community for romance readers. The store also publishes “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report” which analyses the percentage of romance books published by authors of color each year.

Bea Koch assists the store’s regular customer Kaleigh Kailani in finding a book by Jenkins on civil war romance. Working as an assistant to a Hollywood writer, Kailani pitched for the book to be adapted as a show.

Kailani said romance speaks to her more than other genres do because of its feminine focus.

“I don’t want to just say female because anybody can read romance, but there’s just like, a very specificness that I feel like relates to me,” Kailani said.

Reflected in the mirror is The Ripped Bodice’s rainbow book art made out of damaged and unsellable books.

“We try to make things very visually appealing and interesting,” Leah Koch said.

A romance writer herself, Jillian Wilschke looks at books from the new release section as she searches for paranormal stories. Wilschke said she reads everything but may need to be in a specific mental space to indulge in books from other genres.

“I’m always in the place to be able to read romance,” Wilschke said.

At the counter, staffer Piper Lewis holds and shows Wilschke a gift card. Beginning with reading fairy tales as a kid, Lewis said she has developed a love for romance because of the happy endings and focus on primal emotions.

After encountering The Ripped Bodice through TikTok, Lewis applied to join the store’s team. She said this is her favorite place to work since she gets to interact with people who share the same excitement as her in reading and talking about romance novels.

As for recommendations for college readers, Lewis said the novel “It Happened One Summer” by Tessa Bailey is a great option.

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