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Boy meets girl. Boy meets boy. Girl meets girl. Girl meets cowboy. Boy meets werewolf.
These are just a few of the romantic situations you can find in The Ripped Bodice, an all-romance bookstore that recently opened in Culver City, California.
It’s only the second of its kind — to visit the other, you’d have to travel to Canberra City, Australia. You could also try Los Angeles’ other independent bookstores, say Skylight Books or The Last Bookstore, but neither carry any romance novels. That’s how you might end up at The Ripped Bodice, it’s bright pink exterior giving way to a gigantic and meticulously kept store. Plaques honoring individual financial supporters line the sides of bookshelves, which are then categorized by sub-genre: Historical Fiction, Regency, I Love Rock and Roll, and Cowboy are just a few of the ones up front. Erotica, Paranormal, and Vampires are just a few of the ones in the back.
Behind the counter is Bea Koch and a lifesize cardboard cutout of Fabio. Her sister, Leah, sits on an elaborate vintage couch nearby, reading (what else?) a romance novel. Originally from Chicago, the two have just opened The Ripped Bodice, the result of a Kickstarter campaign that began last November and subsequently raised $91,187. The store’s grand opening would come only four months later, on March 4th, 2016. If you know anything about Kickstarter campaigns, that’s extremely fast — many projects take years to complete (and quite a few don’t happen at all.)
"There’s a certain amount of luck involved," says Bea, before her sister cuts her off.
"But what is luck? Luck is being prepared when the right opportunity arises."
"Lea was a Girl Scout in a former life," adds Bea, laughing.
"12 years. They taught me everything I know," says Leah.
Perhaps it was luck that they found the perfect spot in downtown Culver, making their experience as shopkeepers akin to life in Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow (they even have a Gilmore poster near the bathroom.) But it’s not luck that they’ve been reading romance novels since they were 12 years old, nor is it luck that they’re part of a huge community of romance readers and romance writers — relationships that developed over years of reading not just books, but blogs, tweets, and comments, and studying the literary landscape.
When getting ready to open the store, they reached out to writers like Courtney Milan, a romance novelist who works independently of a publisher. Milan was surprised: No bookstores (not even indie ones) has ever reached out to her to ask about the best ways to stock her books: "They actually made a concerted effort to reach out to the community of independent authors and talk about how they could get their books in the store, and which ones they should be ordering. [Writers] told me that they were literally in tears because they had never expected to see their book to be on a bookshelf."
Which is surprising, considering that romance fans are famously voracious readers — according to Bookstats, 46% of romance readers read at least one book per week. If they like one book, they’ll be back for more, says Leah and Bea, who — in just one month — have had repeat visitors. "We were always convinced that the community would coalesce behind us," says Bea, citing a documentary that was successfully Kickstarted before the store, Love Between The Covers. The film introduced many in the romance community to the concept of Kickstarter.
Maris Kreizman, a Publishing Outreach Lead at Kickstarter, has worked with a lot of publishing projects on the crowdfunding platform, but nothing quite like The Ripped Bodice. "I think that part of the reason that they did the Kickstarter was to just measure the interest in what they were doing," she says. "‘Is this worth starting it, building a company for? Do we have that kind of support?’ It turned out they do."
And without Kickstarter, the two explain, they wouldn’t have been able to do this. "I don’t think enough people appreciate how revolutionary Kickstarter is for young entrepreneurs," says Leah. "You think that two twenty-something girls would get a bank loan? They’d laugh at us."
She’s probably right, but considering that romance novel sales make up for $1.1 billion dollars in 2013 (roughly one-fifth of all adult-fiction), this isn’t quite the financial risk many might assume. Despite the business of book publishing being on a cliché downfall, that age-old You’ve Got Mail story is no longer: the number of independent bookstores opening is rising. According to the American Booksellers Association, it was reported just last year that indie sellers had grown by almost 27% since 2009, with 440 new bookstore locations.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to find these books in stores. Just as readers will have to make their way to Culver City to buy romance, even stores that carry romance aren’t quite sure how to stock them. Writers Christina Hobbes and Lauren Billings, who write under one pen name, "Christina Lauren", sell their books at major retailers like Target and Barnes & Noble, but that doesn’t mean their fans can find them. "I think what's frustrating is you never really know where you're going to find [romance novels], says Billings. "We’re put in fiction/literature, which is a nice place to be, it's sort of a compliment. But people then go to look for our books go to romance, and we're not there. People don't know exactly where to find the book they're looking for."
"There's kind of a stigma that you can't be a smart girl if you're reading romance," says Milan. "There was a point when I would go to bookstores and I would buy my four romance novels, and then I'd find some other book that I kind of wanted to read, but not really, and I would put that on top of my romances to buy it." Bea and Leah experienced the same reaction from booksellers: "In a normal bookstore, you don’t know what the reaction you’re going to get is when you ask for a romance novel," says Bea. "It can be quite rude, and also a little scary! It’s frequently a sexist, kinda-gross leer. Like, ‘Oh, you like that stuff?’
In fact, many romance readers cover the covers of their books (often decorated with swooning ladies and hunky men) in public. Or they’ll read on a Kindle. When Bea was getting her master’s degree in New York City (she wrote her thesis as on the use of historical fashion in Regency romance novels), she would often read while riding the subway, and "without fail," someone would ask her a question. "It is not a quiet reading experience. Someone will say — and it’s usually guys — ‘What are you reading? Why are you reading it?’ It’s so messed up!"
Browsing The Ripped Bodice is an experience like none other — Bea and Leah show off two different sections of "cowboy"-themed novels. One is modern and one is historical, Bea explains. The store is divided in a way you can tell took just as much thought and consideration as the books within.
"Erotica" is in the back, but even its divided by sub-genre: including, LGBT (Anne Rice’s son, Chris, has quite a large following for his Desire series), and BDSM (which is where you won’t find 50 Shades of Grey — but more on that in a minute). "Paranormal" separates out shifters (which includes werewolves and the like), vampires, and ghosts (which, I am told, also includes angels.) For those who are into Downton Abbey, there’s a section called "Gilded Age and On." Austenites might try "Regency," Outlander fans would go for "Early Historical." For those who are interested in "spiritual" or Christmas-themed romance novels, there are sections for that. Bea and Leah, who are Jewish, also carry Hanukkah-themed books; there are two and they highly recommend them both.
"We do a ton of research on our own," says Bea on how they choose the books that make the shelves themselves. "We spend a lot of the day online, looking at what’s new and what people are talking about on Twitter."
Sometimes, they have to ask the writers where they would like to "exist" in the store: How do you consider yourself? Are you "erotic romance" or "erotica"? Two very different things, they explain: "In erotica, sex drives the story," says Leah. "Instead of the other way around." Bea adds that not all romance novels have sex.
Most who enter The Ripped Bodice are there to take full advantage of Bea and Leah’s extensive romance novel knowledge. In fact, they consider that to be the main service they provide: first curation, then recommendation. There are nicely bundled "Romance 101" kits for those new to the genre. They offer me the treatment and I tell them that I am mostly a fan of non-fiction. Their eyes light up, simultaneously, as they both scurry to different parts of the store. I’ll need "Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer" by Katie Alender ("it’s super fun"), "To Sin With a Scoundrel" by Cara Elliot ("a classic") and "Nuts" by Alice Clayon – which has a pair of sculpted abs, you guessed it, holding a pile of walnuts. I buy all three. How could I not?
And I’m easy, but there are plenty of customers who come in asking for more "challenging" topics, Leah says. "If you want to read a book about threesomes, I want to give you the greatest book about threesomes we have. We have multiple!" She cites their "No blink" policy: Anyone is free to share what they’re looking for, and they’ll receive no blinks, no judgement.
I assume they’ll have the most controversial romance novel I’ve read: E.L. James’ book-turned-blockbuster, 50 Shades of Grey. They both slowly shake their heads.
"We believe that 50 Shades of Grey depicts an emotionally abusive relationship, which is not something we want in our store," says Leah.
"I liked the movie, as much as I thought I could," says Bea.
"We laughed for two hours!" adds Leah. "It’s totally fine if that’s how you got into romance, and we’re happy to recommend other things."
So far, the sisters happily report, no one’s come into The Ripped Bodice looking for it.
Lea and Bea adamantly agree that, first and foremost, The Ripped Bodice is a "space for women" — not the most insane thing to declare: according to Nielsen Books & Consumer Tracker, romance readers are 84% female.
Men do often visit The Ripped Bodice — either gay men (the store has a wide selection of LGBT books, both paranormal and not) or with their girlfriends. Many are respectful, even asking questions about the store that Bea and Leah are happy to answer. "We certainly get guys in here who are not into it," says Leah. "But [some]men come in here and are like, "What is this, really?" She reminds Bea about the guy who came in the store the other day, she guesses he was about 22-years old, who said to her:"This is a big store. Do you really think that you should have a store this big, just devoted to romance?" To which she responded, "How many comic book stores are there in the United States?" He answered, "Oh, good point."
"I’m always happy to engage," says Bea. "But you can see the exact moment when someone has made up their mind, that they aren’t listening to you anymore and that’s really frustrating."
Leah adds: "People want us to, so badly. They want you to apologize for existing."
Not all men, though, right? I jokingly ask. "We have gotten [straight] guys who come in here alone who are smart because they think that there is some insight to be gained into the female mind from reading romance," says Leah. "And they’re correct!"
The store happens to be pushing their own romance novel version of March Madness — complete with brackets, a fainting couch with a bag of sports balls that can be seen through the front window and an entire display full of sport-specific romance novels. I read off the list of sports representing in the sisters’ collection — from ice hockey, football, and baseball to parkour, surfing and mixed martial arts, proving that Bea and Leah aren’t solely catering to the tastes, just existing fans of the genre.
But so much of the business is not only guiding a reader into beginning a journey with romance novels, but starting them young.
"YA [young adult] and NA [new adult] romance is one of the places where girls and boys can go to find conversations about consent, birth control, STDs, condoms, safe sex, being in a relationship and not being in a relationship — all of those conversations that are so awkward to have and you don’t wanna ask your parents about, you can read about them right here in this really non-shameful, open and honest way," says Bea. "That is such an incredible gift to have as a 15 year old."