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Tucked behind a bubblegum pink storefront on Culver City’s Main Street in Los Angeles exists a safe haven for romance readers of all types. The Ripped Bodice, a bookstore dedicated to the popular genre, is a little corner of the world where, once inside its twinkling doors, lovers of romantic books are encouraged to indulge, free from any shame that might exist in other literary circles when it comes to romance and its many offshoots.
The bookshop, which also has a location in Brooklyn, New York, was opened in 2016 by sisters Bea Hodges-Koch and Leah Koch. As lifelong romance readers, the two were highly aware that, despite the many devout fans of the genre, there didn’t exist a brick-and-mortar devoted exclusively to it. And soon after establishing both their shops, the sisters had their suspicions confirmed: Other readers had also felt the lack of representation for far too long. Leah Koch took some time to speak with me further.
Were you surprised by the Ripped Bodice’s level of success, or did you just know that these readers needed to be serviced in this way?
We thought we would be extremely successful, because there’s just so much hunger and thirst among romance readers to be taken seriously and just treated better and catered to. And when you cater to a community that historically everybody ignores, they respond very passionately and loyally.
Sisters and owners Leah Koch (left) and Bea Hodges-Koch (right) at their Brooklyn, New York location of The Ripped Bodice.
Do you think these perceptions are changing?
I think these days, in particular, younger people do a much better job of questioning the stories that they’re being told and the roots of why somebody thinks something, which is good.
Romance has gained a huge following on TikTok. Do you think that this has kind of helped to establish the genre and its followers as more of a mainstream interest? And, is the app an overall good thing for the reading community?
I think that there’s real positives, and I think that there’s real significant negatives. Positive-wise, it’s a book club that’s been refashioned for this generation. Young people are able to connect with people all over the world, as opposed to just sitting in a living room with their neighbors. That has some amazing benefits. I was so much older when I realized how many people liked romance novels. So just realizing a larger community exists at a younger age, and seeing people that they think are cool are also into books and reading, I think it’s fantastic, and has really translated into tangible sales. And then you have one really big negative, which is that algorithms are racist. That’s going to feed into what these people are reading and the books that they’re excited about, and that’s a problem.
For anyone that’s still hesitant to view romance as a serious literary genre, what would you say to dispel this bias? And, does romance offer societal benefit?
People enjoy them and they make people happy. I could talk for hours and say much more “deeper things,” but honestly, these days, isn’t that enough? On a pretty basic level, like, this is something that a lot of people enjoy; therefore, it has value.
And generally, when I’m presented with some version of “I think romance novels are dumb,” my first question is: “Why?” And the answer is generally: “Because somebody told me so.” I’ve heard the same story so often, which is that somebody in their life, usually their mom, aunt, or grandma, liked romance — and somebody in their life, usually their father, grandfather, uncle, would make fun of them for it. My response to this is usually that you don’t, you don’t really have to understand something to respect its value to people who enjoy it.
Speaking of people enjoying it, what are the general reactions you get to people walking into your store?
Lots of squeals. People cry on a semi-regular basis. But generally, it’s people knowing that they’re in a space that is completely devoted to this thing that they like and it’s a really fun environment.
When you’re thinking about servicing this demographic and picking titles that you know they would enjoy reading, what do you look for, and what are the cornerstones of a good romance novel?
The main thing is creativity. I’m really looking for somebody who’s doing something creative and new, and that can be on a big scale or a very small scale. I love the tropes of the genre, it never gets old to me, but I like authors putting a fresh spin on it.
For Leah Koch and so many others like her, the escapism that literature has always provided is really no different with this particular genre. If anything, romance, with its addictive plotlines and explorations into one of life’s greatest emotions, is actually for anyone and everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned romantic or new to the territory, you can read on to find out some of Koch’s and the Ripped Bodice’s latest favorite romance reads to shamelessly indulge in this Valentine’s Day and beyond.
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The Ripped Bodice
"Something Wild & Wonderful" by Anita Kelly
When Alexei Lebedev comes out to his family and they disown him, he decides to take a hike up the stunning Pacific Crest Trail as his mind reels over his family’s reactions, his own residual traumas and even his relationship to religion. Suddenly, he sees a poisonous snake headed toward a handsome guy on a trail near him. Alexei took the hike to clear his mind, not to meet the good-looking and recently heartbroken Ben Caravalho. But there are plenty of romantic exchanges between the pair, and their attraction heats up as the incline gets steeper. Kelly has referred to her 2023 queer novel as “similar to ‘Wild,’ but make it gay.”
The Ripped Bodice
"Hunt on Dark Waters" by Katee Robert
Robert is well-known in the genre for her racy romances full of cheeky characters, queer representation and some ancient lore peppered in here and there. The first book in her “Crimson Sails” series, “Hunt on Dark Waters,” is a fantasy romance awash with spicy pirate love. Evelyn, a witch with a penchant for pickpocketing, finds herself in another world after falling through a portal into the sea. She’s pulled from the waters by a gang of pirates and their telekinetic captain. Evelyn has to make a choice: Join the crew, or die. And Bowen, the captain of the Cŵn Annwn, is looking to bargain for more than just her loyalty.
The Ripped Bodice
"Bet on It" by Jodie Slaughter
Slaughter’s novel is the perfect cozy Southern romance, where peach cobbler, bingo and the grocery chain Piggly Wiggly all play a part in a sweet friends-to-lovers story. Aja Owens is a new transplant to Greenbelt, South Carolina, and the last thing she was expecting was to fall for a man at the Piggly Wiggly — while having a panic attack, no less. And for Walker Abbott, the only thing he’s back home for is a visit to his aging grandmother, not a new relationship in the frozen food aisle. But Walker’s Gram happens to be one of Aja’s favorite bingo partners, and so the two strangers end up meeting again. A mutual attraction is growing increasingly unavoidable, so a sex-pact is jokingly forged in an effort to keep the two from an emotional entanglement neither feels ready for at the moment. Will exceptions be made in this slow-burn romance story?
The Ripped Bodice
"A Lady for a Duke" by Alexis Hall
Perfect for anyone craving a little historical romance á la “Bridgerton,” this book from romance juggernaut Hall checks all your boxes. Our heroine, Viola Carroll, is believed to have died, but she’s still very much alive. She takes this opportunity to finally live free of the societal expectations that came with her title and wealth. In pursuing this new beginning, though, she’s had to let go of her once closest friend, Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood. But when they meet again years later, Viola sees how deeply that separation has affected Justin, and she becomes determined to transform him back into the happy man he once was — all while the feelings she’s had for the duke, feelings that she's long kept buried, bloom ever more strongly.
The Ripped Bodice
"The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches" by Sangu Mandanna
This novel, which author Emily Henry hailed upon its release as “one of my coziest reads of the year,” is a found-family romance about a lonely witch named Mika Moon, one of the few witches left in Britain who spends most of her time avoiding other magical ilk. This is because the more witches who gather together, the more likely their power will be harder to conceal. Mika grew up as an orphan, so she tells herself she’s used to the solitary life. Her most active link to the outside world is a silly social media account where she plays at being precisely what she truly is: a witch. But one day she’s asked to travel to the Nowhere House to become the instructor of three young witches. She agrees, and finds herself living in a bustling home full of peculiar characters, including Jamie, the house’s attractive but brisk librarian. His main concern is to protect the children, and he doesn’t see Mika’s teachings as anything but a possible jeopardization of their safety and quiet lives. In Jamie’s view, Mika poses a threat to Nowhere House… albeit a bewitchingly attractive one.
The Ripped Bodice
"Seven Days in June" by Tia Williams
Williams’ swoon-worthy book is about Eva Mercy, a single mom and bestselling author of erotica novels, and Shane Hall, a reclusive award-winning writer. Fifteen years after Shane and Eva had a fling, he shows up unexpectedly in New York for a literary event where Eva’s in attendance, and sparks fly. And a hidden truth lies between them: Eva and Shane have been secretly writing to one another within their written work for years. They can’t deny their chemistry — and over the next seven days, during a steamy Brooklyn summer, the two reconnect. The book was a Reese’s Book Club pick and an instant New York Times bestseller, and The Washington Post named it one of the best romance novels of 2021.
The Ripped Bodice
"The Intimacy Experiment" by Rosie Danan
The plot of Danan’s second novel almost begins like a joke you might hear: A rabbi and a porn star team up to fill seats in a synagogue. Fans of Danan’s books will likely recognize Naomi Grant as a side character from “The Roommate,” but she’s front and center as the main love interest here. She's a former adult star who also happens to have an advanced degree in sex education, and she co-leads a popular sex-positive online platform called Shameless. By chance she meets Ethan Cohen, an attractive rabbi for a Los Angeles synagogue, at a conference. Ethan’s congregation is on the slim side, and he’s been tasked with bringing in more congregants, ideally younger ones, or possibly losing his position. He believes that Naomi’s background might provide the right enticement to pull in some more followers. She somewhat reluctantly agrees, and the pair end up creating a seminar series on modern intimacy that raises a few temps and keeps them in close proximity to one another.
The Ripped Bodice
"The Rakess: Society of Sirens" by Scarlett Peckham
Peckham’s “Society of Sirens” series follows three “libertine ladies” who plan to use their less-than-pure reputations to their advantage, all in the name of equal rights and steamy nights. Seraphina Arden is passionate about many things, including wine-spiked debauchery, great sex and women’s rights. And she plans to raise money for equality by publishing a scintillating memoir about her love affairs – one of which will, once public, ruin a man she despises. Suddenly caught up in the mix of Seraphina’s activism and activities is Adam Anderson, a widowed Scot with kids. He’s not looking for a wild affair, but the pair have an undeniable attraction and fall hard. But things get complicated when it’s revealed that Adam’s livelihood depends on that very same man whom Seraphina plans to ruin.