Q&A: Two Sisters, a New Bookstore, and a Feminist Take on Romance Novels

Once upon a time there were two little girls in a Chicago house full of books. These sisters grew into young feminists -- who read romance novels.  On realizing there was no bookstore in the U.S. devoted to romance, they decided to do what any self-respecting feminist would do: launch one. The sisters raised more than $90,000 on Kickstarter and opened “The Ripped Bodice” in Culver City, Los Angeles in March 2016.

This spring, at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, the "Ripped Bodice" tent – a mini-replica of the store – popped out from the rows of other bookseller tents. The Koch sisters – Leah (age 24) and Bea (27) -- had fashioned it into a warm, inviting pink space, a shabby chic living room – with family on hand to help. Older brother reading the newspaper, sister-in-law tucked in a corner working, beaming father showing visitors around -- as Leah and Bea invited passersby inside.

Amid the displays featuring brand-name romance writers like Nora Roberts and Julia Quinn, and classics ones like Jane Austen, there were books that put romance in the genre-mixmaster:  characters of color, LGBTQ stories, and other distinctly modern takes. The Koch sisters are on a mission to bring energy, passion, and curiosity to a genre often associated with polite old ladies -- and one known for high sales numbers.

“The Ripped Bodice” is making romance irreverent and hip, with shirts and bookmarks that declare “I am the heroine of my own story” or “Smart Girls Read Romance.”  Their most recent addition: a shirt declaring “A Feminist Reads Whatever The F*ck They Want."

The National talked with the Koch sisters about their enthusiasm for romance books, starting a bookstore, how much sex in a romance novel is too much  – and selling books that are "romance adjacent."

Q: You are both avid readers, and come from a family of readers. What were the first romance books you each read?

LK: I wish I remembered because people ask us all the time! Nora Roberts was the author who really got me hooked on romance. Her books are filled with so many great female friendships.

BK: I was a big historical fiction reader as a tween. The romance section was right next door at our local bookstore so I just gravitated over there at some point. Loretta Chase was one of my first authors, Mr. Impossible was one of the first books I fell in love with.

Q: For starters, let’s talk about “romance” as a genre of literature. The Romance Writers of America claims: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”  Do all the books in your store fit that description?

BK: Most of them do, but not all. We have a “romance adjacent” section where we put everything that doesn’t strictly fit the definition. And we’re very honest and open with our customers about what they’re going to get from each book (i e. we warn them if a book doesn’t have a happy ending.)

LK: People seem to be very focused on the roughly 5% of our store that is not romance novels. Our focus is always going to be on romance novels but we also like to support female writers writing other interesting things.

Q: Do you see it as your mission to define – or redefine – what is considered “romance”?  How much of a role do publishers have on what is classified as a “romance”? Would you ever read a novel and think that it would fit into the definition of “romance” and yet the publisher has not classified it that way?

BK: We see our mission as introducing and educating as many readers as possible about everything that falls under the romance umbrella. There definitely is a very specific definition and look for romance novels “proper.” (Noted above) But our customers read widely and we’re always looking for literature that might appeal to a romance reader. We’re just very upfront about what is in each book, so there are no surprises for a reader expecting a happy ending.

Q: Do you have thoughts on the trends of “romance” books? Do you see new directions or recalibrations – for instance with more diverse relationships?

BK: There are always trends. Particular tropes appeal to readers at certain times. With the political climate as it is, we’re expecting a lot more explicitly political romance novels.

LK: There is absolutely a focus on more inclusive romance which we are thrilled about. We want to see that trend continue to grow at a rapid rate, especially at major publishing houses.

Q: You proudly declare yourselves “feminists.” Would you carry romance books by authors who would never consider themselves feminists? Or writers who glorify traditional gender roles, and the idea that women should be submissive to men? Or is part of your mission to educate readers to challenge the old tropes of a passive woman needing to be rescued by a powerful man?

BK: We absolutely name ourselves as feminists, and a big part of that (for us) is allowing women to choose their own reading material.

Q:  Would those visiting “The Ripped Bodice” find classic novels with romantic themes – say Love Story -- that may not be classified as “romance,” but are about love, or Jane Eyre or A Room With a View, books that have distinct takes on love and romance, but are ultimately about love?

BK: We have a classics sections which is dominated by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. The classics are such gateway books for so many readers, and we like to honor where the genre came from.

Q:  So, let’s get to the elephant in the room! Sex. How explicit are the books in your store? Would you ever decide not to feature books because they tilt toward pornographic?

BK: There is a wide-range of explicitness in the books we carry. And a romance novel does not need to have sex to be considered as such, in fact, there are plenty that “close the door” on the sex scenes.

LK: The sex scenes are usually pretty low on the things we consider before we stock a book. No, we have never rejected a book for being too explicit. 

Q: Looking around your booth at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, you seemed to present an array of really diverse romance books. How central to your mission is it to carry LGBTQ authors and those of color?

BK: It’s absolutely essential to our mission. Romance is for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, age, etc.

Q: What do you see as the new trends in romance literature? You carry some of the big name romance authors  - like Julia Quinn -- who seem to produce a book a year, but I wonder: how do you discover new voices? Cutting edge or up and coming authors?

BK: We are very active in the romance community. One of the best places to find new-to-us voices is on Twitter. We also read all the romance blogs and try and keep in contact with lots of readers and writers. Writers can submit their work to us directly on our website for consideration. We look at every single submission we receive and love finding new authors for our shelves.

Q: Speaking of that: Any new authors on the horizon whom you recommend? And any authors who are blending genres – speculative romance, for instance?

LK: Two fabulous authors who have been self-publishing for the past few years each just released their first books with major publishers. Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union and Alisha Rai’s Hate to Want You (out in July).

Q: You do many author events at your store – at least one a week. What’s the craziest thing that ever happened at an event?

LK: Someone left their dentures in our bathroom. The cops have come to check on long lines outside the door a couple of times, they’re always very nice!

Q: What happened to the dentures?

BK: We only knew because someone called and asked if we had found any dentures! (We hadn’t.) Sadly, when we went looking we couldn’t find them.  

Q: You are sisters – any disagreements? How do you resolve them?

LK: It doesn’t happen that often but generally when we disagree whoever is the tiredest gives in and lets the other one decide.

Q: I realize that there’s a real romance to Los Angeles, but you were both born and raised in Chicago. What would it take for you to open a romance store in Chicago? In New York?      

LK: We aren’t considering or even discussing expansion until we are three years in. We have a bit of trouble focusing on one thing at once so when we opened we decided we had to focus on this shop for a while and give it time to grow. We’d love to expand eventually.

BK: LA has been so welcoming to us. We feel really lucky to be part of the bookstore community here. And there’s something to be said for being in such a lovely place to visit. We get a lot of visitors on vacation.