Interview with Bea and Leah Koch of The Ripped Bodice, Part One
On the door of the store hangs an “Open” sign made of a book. As my friend and I walk in, Leah Koch, co-owner of the shop, greets us with an enthusiastic “Hello!” Although I’ve been here twice before, I’m eager to take in new sights, from the March Madness sports romance display at the front of the store to the March Madness DABWAHA bracket display on the right wall, complete with books selected for the tourney on shelves below.
“Romance is Real,” proclaims the sign etched on the antique mirror behind the register. From above hang heart-shaped glass lights, and when I purchase something for a friend, the receipt even prints out on paper that’s pink.
Welcome to The Ripped Bodice, a romance-themed bookstore and the first of its kind in the United States. Located in Culver City, Los Angeles, the shop was funded by a kickstarter campaign supported by eager romance readers, and it caters to their tastes with equal eagerness.
With paranormal romance bookshelves labeled by creature type, historical romances shelved by the time period in which they take place, and contemporary sections that include Cowboys, Bikes ‘N Tats, and I Love Rock and Roll, the store welcomes every kind of romance reader, whether they seek erotica, Young Adult, LGBTQ, or Christian romance.
Bea and Leah Koch, the sisters who co-own The Ripped Bodice, seem to have thought of almost everything. There is even a pink kids’ table with crayons and coloring sheets depicting Eleanor Roosevelt and Harriet Tubman. (“We like to start on them early,” Leah quips). I sat down on one of the store’s antique couches to interview the two.
Janine: So, how long have you been reading romances? What was the first romance you ever read, and how did you get hooked on the genre?
Leah: Bea gets to go first since she’s older.
Bea: Yeah. I cannot remember the first romance I read, and I have been racking my brain trying to come up with it. One of the very early ones was definitely Lord of Scoundrels, which I believe I found because I was reading lots of historical fiction. Then I found Austen kind of continuations. Lord of Scoundrels was a very early one, and I’ve been reading them since I was probably in middle school. Have continued to read them ever since.
Leah: Yeah, and I just picked them up because they were what Bea was reading. But she was pretty much only doing historical and I think I read like one or two and then I was like “I like the idea of this but I don’t necessarily like all the weird rules,” so I started reading contemporaries. Nora Roberts was the first stuff I read. Because I read one book and— we never looked back. I mean, we came from a very nonjudgmental reading household, so our parents didn’t care what we read. And also let us have as many books as we wanted…
Leah: Which is sort of crucial in the development of a reader. And– here we are.
Janine: Do you have a favorite romance? If so, what is it?
Leah: Only one?
Bea: Can we pick three?
Janine: You can pick three.
Leah: I don’t know if I can pick just one. I mean, I could pick just one, but then you’d come back tomorrow and I’d pick a different one. Ah, I mean, oh, I guess I’ll go with—I do think my favorite is Something About You by Julie James. [Turning to Bea] Just pick one.
Bea: I think my favorite is, um, oh, it’s Julia Quinn. Yeah —
Leah: Duke and I.
Bea: No, it’s not the first one. It’s the one with Francesca and Michael.
Janine: Oh! I think that’s um…
Bea: It’s in the Bridgerton series.
Janine: Yeah, I know the one you mean! It’s, it’s uh…
Bea: I cannot remember the name right now.
Janine: It’s an angsty one, relatively.
Bea: It is relatively. Yes. She’s married to his cousin. His cousin then dies, and she gets remarried, but it’s really beautiful. It’s one of my favorites.
Janine: It’s something with Need in the title, no? I’m not sure.
Leah [To the friend who is manning the register during the interview]: Laura, can you just look up the Bridgerton series? Julia Quinn. We’re looking for Francesca’s book?
Bea: Let me just go look at the bookshelf.
Leah: Bea can look on the bookshelf.
Bea: [Picking up books] No. No. Which one is it?
Leah: Any luck?
Laura: What’s their names? The character names?
Bea: Francesca and Michael.
Janine [Trying to remember title]: Oh gosh, this is driving me crazy.
Laura: Is it When He Was Wicked?
Bea: When He Was Wicked!
Janine: Yes, you’re right! You’re right.
Bea: Yes! [Holds up book triumphantly] Michael Sterling!
Leah: Bea’s favorite book is When He Was Wicked.
Bea: Oh, my goodness.
Leah: For the record. I’m glad you spent all that time looking for it.
Janine: How did the idea of opening a romance-only bookshop come to you? Was it something you dreamed about for years, or did the idea appear in your minds relatively recently?
Bea: I think the idea of owning a store has always really appealed to us. We really like curating stuff, interacting with customers, there’s lots that appeals to us. We had talked about opening a boutique, and it very quickly evolved into a romance only bookstore.
Over one really quick conversation we kind of landed on this idea, and settled, and that’s kind of been what we’ve been doing since then. Once we said it, it was so perfect and right and exactly what we wanted to do that we never looked back.
Janine: Awesome. That was actually going to be my next question. Once you thought of it, did you try to talk yourselves out of it –
Janine: –or did you immediately know you wanted to go for it?
Leah: No, not at all. That’s what people find really weird. We had this conversation—Bea didn’t live in LA then, she was visiting me, and she went back to New York—and the next day we started looking up permits and–
Leah: And locations and… So we really didn’t look back. We started the Kickstarter six months later.
Bea: I mean, we were lucky. I was finishing graduate school, and Leah was –
Leah: Yes, timing wise—
Bea: Timing wise it really worked out–
Leah: And we were also able to do this before we jumped into careers. So we didn’t have to put anything on hold to do this, we could jump right into this. So I do think we got lucky in some ways.
Janine: The next question is how did your family and friends react to the concept of you opening a romance only bookshop? Were they supportive or skeptical?
Leah: We are the female contingent of our family. So our brother– We have a brother and a dad. And they were thrilled that we wanted to open our own business. They–
Bea: And a bookstore. They are both bookstore obsessive.
Leah: Yes, they were very excited about the bookstore. We’re talking like a couple of years ago. They were interested but not sold on the idea. Now they’re very excited, and they love sending people here and I think they think it’s really fun and they were here helping us a lot with the opening so they’re incredibly supportive.
Bea: Yeah. It’s like a fun fact for them. They love telling people what we do and they think it’s quite clever and interesting. But there was a progression. There was a time when they were both kind of like “Are you sure that they want to be that specific, and are you sure you are that specific that that’s what you want to focus on?” And to us it’s just a no brainer. Because yes, that’s what we love.
Leah: But it was also good. They were the first people we had to convince, so it was a good training ground.
Janine: What kind of market research did you do prior to opening The Ripped Bodice? How did you choose a location?
Bea: That’s an interesting question because we tried to do as much as possible and kind of found that it was difficult when we were doing something so unique.
We went on a bookstore tour of Los Angeles and that was super helpful. Visited indie bookstores, visited Barnes and Nobles, we looked at what was available. We chose Culver City because we live here. And we love it. We love living here. We’ve been here for two years; we knew this was a great community.
And when we were looking for a location, it just kind of worked out, that exactly what we wanted—this is again where luck and timing plays a role. This spot was available, they wanted to move quickly, we wanted to move quickly, and it worked out. We signed the lease on January first.
Bea: So everything kind of just kept rolling. There wasn’t a big roadblock. I mean, there were tons of little ones, but we handled them. And it, yeah, it just worked out that Culver City had a space.
And we knew that Culver City wanted a bookstore. A lot of people in the neighborhood said “We haven’t had a bookstore for years! We would love to have one!”
We didn’t maybe tell people it was a romance only bookstore. But once they came in and saw what it was they were also very excited.
Bea: But we do get a lot of questions, like “What is a bodice?” Which is totally fine. We love explaining what it is.
Bea: Yeah. We have a little illustration on the front of the store.
Janine: How did you arrive at the name for the store? (Good segue by the way). Did you brainstorm a list of names for it, and if so which names did you consider that didn’t make the cut?
Leah: None. There were none. Bea’s graduate thesis was called Mending the Ripped Bodice. It was about the clothes in Regency romance novels. I don’t even really remember the conversation—
Bea: I don’t either.
Leah: It was always going to be called that.
Bea: I feel like at one point we just started calling it that.
Leah: Yeah. And did we have any other names?
Leah: I don’t think we ever had another name.
Bea: And to us the name was really important. It was really indicative of the kind of store we were trying to build, which is a store that has fun with this genre. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Leah: We love romance and care about it so much, but there is an element of fun to it and that’s what we wanted to play with. So the name from the beginning really spoke to us.
Bea: And to a lot of people who we reached out to talk to about it. They loved the name as well.
Janine: It’s a nice name. I really like it.
Bea: Thank you.
Leah: We like it too.
Bea: We do.
Leah: And I think particularly now that we’ve added the tagline “A Romantic Bookstore” it really does explain what we’re doing here and why you might want to enter.
Janine: What backgrounds do you bring to your new jobs of bookstore proprietresses, and how do your prior experiences come in handy now?
Leah: Well. For someone who’s not that old I’ve had a lot of jobs.
Bea: Yes. [Laughter]
Leah: I basically had a different job every summer of my life once I was in school. So I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve worked in retail in various capacities which is very helpful. I’ve sold cupcakes. I’ve sold fabric. I was a tour guide for a chocolate tour guide company. All of which are helpful in dealing with customers and just sort of knowing the mechanics of retail.
And we also, I think the other thing, aside from owning the store, like you know, I also make quilts. So we both come from different creative backgrounds, Bea does more—
Bea: You also owned a cupcake truck.
Bea: Leah has owned a business before.
Leah: Yes. And sold things, in various capacities, which is helpful. But Bea writes, and does the more, I guess—it’s like, intellectual creativity vs. physical, making things with your hands creativity?
Bea: And I think that’s very helpful, because we basically, the whole store is one big DIY. We did it all ourselves.
Leah: And we get tons of people asking if we had a designer or somebody to help us. We did not. We did everything ourselves, which was the most fun part.
[Turning to Bea] How does your background help?
Bea: Unlike Leah I have not really had many jobs. I have been a student since forever. I never left school. I went straight from college to graduate school and then we opened this business.
While in college and graduate school I worked in libraries, and I have always loved old books. I worked in the Beinecke Rare Books Library at Yale and the Lewis Walpole Library, which is one of the hidden treasures of Connecticut, if you ever get up there. It’s this tiny little library that has a really specific collection, and I learned a lot about collections management, and organization, and care for books, all those.
Leah: Yes. Yeah, Bea really has the expertise of caring for the books and organizing the books.
Bea: Yeah. Ah. Hard-won expertise. [Laughs]
Leah: Which is great.
Bea: Well, I know. The place where I interned, the Walpole Library, is the most magical place in the entire world. They have a croquet court, and every day at noon we’d close the library and we’d go outside and play croquet.
Bea: And I miss it every day! [laughs] Hello to my friends at the Walpole!
Leah: We could do that here.
Bea: Yes we could. We might have to set it up to play croquet.
Leah: I don’t know how to play croquet.
Bea: It’s so hard! And they are so good! They’ve become—
Leah: I don’t know the rules. I just know that you hit the ball through the—
Bea: Yeah, you have to hit the ball—
Janine: It sounds like good research for a romance novel.
Bea: It really was. And that’s why I love that Bridgerton novel where they play croquet with the black ball of death. Do you know what I mean?
Janine: I haven’t read that one.
Bea: I think it’s The Viscount Who Loved Me.
Leah: We’re not all as specific as you are.
Bea: Yeah. Anyway. I worked in libraries.
Janine: This next one is kind of long-winded question.
Janine: The Ripped Bodice is laid out differently from most bookstores, with paranormal romances shelved by type of creature, historicals by time period, etc. Then there are the lovely decorative touches, from the antique couches to the beliefs posted in the entryway, to the receipts, which print out on pink paper. Displays have covered everything from time travel romance during daylight savings time to sports romances for March Madness.
How do you collaborate on ideas like these? Do you brainstorm or do they just come to you? Are there other stores that inspire you? Do you have to convince one another or are you usually on the same page from the beginning?
Bea: Those are good questions.
Leah: Yeah. In terms of the displays, like time travel, sports and stuff, those tend to be inspired by the time of the year, like those two both are. And we are very much generally on the same page about that kind of thing. One of us says, “Oh, this would be cool to do!” and the other one’s like, “Okay, go for it.”
Bea: I think one of the great things about having the store is we can play with stuff like that. Leah always decorates our house for the season, and so now she kind of gets to bring that here.
Leah: I am so excited for Christmas!
Bea: We love pinterest, and wish our lives were moving pinterest boards and now we have a store—
Bea: In which to kind of do all the things that you always think “Who has time?”
Leah: “Why do you do that?”
Bea: We do!
Leah: We do!
Bea: We’ll do it. There’s a ton of different pinterest fail blogs where people try things and really fail and I think those are so funny. But we try and do the–
Leah: The good version.
Bea: The good version. Yeah, like the “Open” and “Closed” signs. Leah just saw that. No, we were looking for open and closed signs–
Bea: –couldn’t find one, saw them on sale–
Leah: We saw them on sale for like a hundred dollars. And I made them.
Bea: –and she made them.
Leah: But it [the version they first saw for sale] had another book and it had block letters on it.
And that stuff is so fun. That’s the fun part. We’re about to change over the front of the store as soon as March Madness is over and we’re debating what the next—like, some things are set by the time of year, we’re going to have a huge LGBTQ display for Pride month, and we’re going to have, I haven’t exactly figured out what it is but we’re Olympics nuts, so we’re going to have some kind of USA patriotic thing for the summer Olympics.
Bea: And, like, a medal counter of the USA medals—
Janine: Oh, nice.
Leah: Yeah. Some things are based on the time of year but the next month isn’t, there’s not really anything in particular that happens in April; I think we’re going with cowboys, we aren’t 100% set.
Bea: But then it’s so fun. So for sports we went to the Goodwill down the street and bought antique sports equipment, and blow up sports balls, and brought stuff from home, and jerseys and stuff. And that’s so fun to decorate.
Janine: What about the shelving [by creature or trope]?
Leah: So that was inherent from the store from the get go. Basically the point of the store is to be able to do that.
Bea: Because any, even a decent sized romance section at any other bookstore, it’s just romance shelved alphabetically. And it’s…people who read historicals have very different tastes than people who want to read erotica, or cowboys, or only Christian romance. Whatever your niche is.
Even if you read across all genres, it’s still nice to see that here are all the historicals. And not only here are all the historicals, but the Victorians are separated from the Regency, because some people prefer to read a later time period. Or it’s just nice to have that option.
Leah: And it’s an incredibly unique way to browse that you’re really not going to find anywhere else. I think it’s the best way to find new books to read. If you really like books about bikers, there’s a whole biker section in Bikes ‘N Tats, and it’s just so easy to browse, and you, everything that you pick up is going to have something to do with the genre you already know you like.
Part II of our interview with Bea and Leah can be found here.