Romancing the Bookstore

How two sisters are turning convention on its ear and bringing the biggest eBook category back to the shelf, to the delight of their customers.

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Sisters Bea and Leah Koch, are the adventurous proprietresses of The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, CA, a brand new store focusing on Romance. They recently sat down with Kat Meyer, the co-chair of the upcoming Nielsen Romance Book Summit being held during RWA on July 14th in San Diego. Both sisters will be joining the Summit to talk about their experiences—their first public appearance since they opened the store–and what other booksellers can learn by example.

Kat: What have you learned as a bookstore owner/bookseller that has surprised you most about romance readers (that you hadn’t known before operating the store)?

Bea: I was surprised to discover how many readers read across sub-genre. I’ve always read historical romance, and Leah has hopped around more, but I love our customer’s willingness to try something new. As one reader said to me, “I know there’s going to be a happy ending so I’ll take a chance on a new setting or characters.”

Kat: I’ve spoken to Leah over the phone while she has been working at the store, and it’s so cool to hear shoppers in the background talking about how much they love the store — what are you hearing from readers who visit the store that they love most about shopping at The Ripped Bodice?

Leah: I think the main things is that their genre is being recognized. There is something so special about walking into a store that is entirely devoted to the genre you love. There is also the beauty of knowing everyone in the store is there for the same thing. So often, we see customers peeking over each others shoulders at what people are buying and saying “I loved that one.” Practically, I think people really appreciate the way the store is laid out by sub-genre so that they can shop just for cowboys or vampires.

Kat: You’ve got a few events under your belt (or bodice?) now. Would you say that an event at your store – one devoted exclusively to romance – is different from one at say, a Barnes and Noble, or even a general indie? If so, why?

Leah: I do think it’s different because everything we do takes romance very seriously. When we do events with authors, you hear people asking really thoughtful questions about “why did you put this sex scene here?” and “how did you choose the heroine’s job?”. The space is also very woman focused which really comes through in all of our events. Our incredibly popular “Romantic Comedy” stand-up comedy night every month has really shown me how starved women are for events that cater to them. I am always delighted to hear mostly female comics talking specifically about the female experience.

Kat: What kind of response has Ripped Bodice had from publishers? Are you sensing they’re excited to have a dedicated romance bookstore? 

Bea: The response from publishers has been fantastic, and very helpful. Especially romance-specific imprints, who are just so welcoming and lovely. I think there’s a real sense of camaraderie in the romance publishing world – like we’re all in this together, and also isn’t everyone else so silly for writing us off?

Kat: You carry sidelines by and for readers of romance. Do specific non-book items help with sales of books? What advice do you have for publishers, authors and other booksellers about the importance of merchandising for romance books?

Bea: Choosing all the things that are not books is one of the more fun parts of our job. Sidelines definitely helps with our bottom line and I think often works in tandem with the books. Often someone who is picking up a book will remember they need a birthday card for next week.

We carry a lot of custom items, like bookmarks and jewelry. We find that customers love wearing something with our name on it, and we love all that free advertising.

In terms of merchandising for authors, I would say the sky is the limit. We see a lot of swag come through here, and it seems like anything that’s not a bookmark does well. Especially something with a tie-in to the story.

Kat: Indie booksellers of all sorts are often anchors of their communities. What kind of reception have you had by your neighbors in Culver City? Is the store bringing in foot traffic of non-romance readers that are converting to romance readers?

Leah: Absolutely! We really try to keep in mind that in addition to being a genre-specific bookstore we are a neighborhood bookstore. We get tons of people from Culver City who have never read romance. Some aren’t necessarily interested and are thrilled that we have cards and other gifts and some are excited to try out a new genre.

Bea: We carry historical fiction, women’s fiction, and other things we call “romance adjacent.” We consider them our gateway books. Often we’ll start someone on a romance adjacent series and see them in the next week, moving more towards traditional romance. There is such a feeling of accomplishment and pride when someone comes in to rave about the book you recommended.

Kat: How big a part does e-tailing play in the store’s concept? And, in what ways? 

Leah: It’s important and we love to be able to reach readers who are not in Los Angeles but right now we are more focused on the in person experience. There is just no way for us to compete online, especially in terms of shipping, so we really try to focus on where we can compete, which is in creating an incredible book shopping experience.

Bea and Leah Koch are sisters and the owners of The Ripped Bodice. They grew up in Chicago. Bea went on to attend Yale and NYU, where she wrote a graduate thesis titled, “Mending the Ripped Bodice.” Leah moved to Los Angeles to attend USC, graduating cum laude with a degree in visual and performing arts.

Bea specializes in Regency and other historical romance. Her favorite authors include Tessa Dare, Lisa Kleypas, Eloisa James, Beverly Jenkins, and Julia Quinn.

Leah reads widely throughout the contemporary, paranormal and erotica subgenres. She especially enjoys new adult, witches and sports romance. Her favorite authors include Christina Lauren, Kristen Proby, Nora Roberts, Elle Kennedy, Julie James, and Kristen Callihan.

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The 2016 Nielsen Romance Book Summit is taking place on July 14th, during the Romance Writers of America convention in San Diego, CA. Click here for more information, the full schedule and tickets.

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