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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Bookseller_spotlight

We’re excited to welcome Lexi Beach, co-owner of the Astoria Bookshop in Queens, NY as our featured bookseller. Lexi is a NetGalley member, an American Booksellers Association member, and just celebrated the Astoria Bookshop’s 2-year anniversary! Keep reading to discover how Lexi became a bookseller, what upcoming books she’s excited about, and her tips for writing in-store recommendations!

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A nice place to start is with your bookseller origin story – how did you become the co-owner of the Astoria Bookshop?

I had been working in various areas of book publishing for almost 10 years before I thought about opening a store. At the time, I was in a job that was increasingly a poor fit, and I started hearing from friends & colleagues in Astoria that the neighborhood needed a bookstore. I started asking other bookstore owners about their work, trying to figure out if this would be a viable next step in my career. And the more I learned, the more it seemed like a great idea. And then I got laid off from the job I didn’t want anymore, which gave me the chance to pursue the plan for real. That was three years ago, and I’m celebrating 2 years in business this week.

The Astoria Bookshop opened in 2013 in Queens, NY in a neighborhood (and borough!) without any indie bookstores – how has your shop been received by the community? Do you host any special events that have encouraged a relationship with those in your area?

The community has been incredibly supportive of the Bookshop since well before we opened our doors. We ran a very successful crowdfunding campaign, we had people offer to help us move bookcases & shelve books before we opened, and we had repeat customers after one day. We host two reading series that are curated by local writing groups, we’ve held lots of readings with Queens-based authors, we run book fairs at many nearby schools, we offer writing workshops led by writers who live in the neighborhood, and we’ve partnered with some local organizations for events of all kinds.

Your store sells physical books and also ebooks – what led you to make the decision to carry both formats? Do you think it has helped contribute to your success thus far?

Indiecommerce (the ecommerce solution offered to ABA member stores) makes carrying ebooks very easy, using the Kobo platform. I’m very happy that I can offer my customers a choice of format, but the sales of ebooks are minimal to say the least. The vast majority of our sales are physical books sold in the store.

We talk a lot about various communities, especially when it comes to those who love and advocate for books – have you found the indie bookseller community unique in any particular way? Has anything surprised you since you’ve opened your store?

Indie booksellers are the best people in the world. Every time I go to an industry event, or meet up with my colleagues, I walk away feeling like I invited myself into the greatest club on the planet and everyone welcomed me with hugs & kisses & industry data.

As a bookseller, do you have any tips for writing customer-facing recommendations that appear in-store, perhaps on a shelftalker?

  • Keep it short – The goal of a shelftalker is to get someone to pick up the book. You don’t need to tell them the whole plot.
  • Make it personal – Shelftalkers are written by real people, not a computer algorithm. A personal anecdote can be especially helpful. (I recount how I read the final chapter of The World According to Garp while driving myself to work because I couldn’t bear to put it down. True story.)
  • Change them up – Just like you would change up a display table, it can help to rotate shelftalkers in and out. If your staff is very small, recruit local authors or librarians to write some for you so that the suggestions are more varied.

Which upcoming book(s) are you the most excited about recommending to your customers?

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is definitely my adult fiction pick for fall. I read it two months ago and I STILL can’t shut up about how great it is. Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash is a wonderful YA graphic memoir that I’m very excited about. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson is insanely funny.

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Lightning Round! 

If you could bring 1 author into your bookstore for a special event, who would it be?  
Since we already hosted a reading with Roxane Gay, next on the wish list is Lev Grossman.

Your favorite aspect of The Astoria Bookshop:  
Our customers. They are just incredible—so generous, so savvy, so cool.

The book you’ve hand-sold the most lately:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me
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The last book that made you smile:

Mitford at the Fashion Zoo, a picture book about a giraffe who wants to work in the fashion industry.

Thanks so much to Lexi and make sure to visit the Astoria Bookshop’s website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!
You can see more tips for writing reviews here – and booksellers, don’t forget to add your ABA number to your NetGalley profile so you can start receiving the free Digital White Box!

*Interviewed by Tarah Theoret

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