Last October, sisters Leah and Bea Koch ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund a romance-only bookstore in Los Angeles, Calif., and on March 4, the Ripped Bodice held its grand opening.
So far, the sisters have both been thrilled by the community's response to their store. Customers as well as other retailers have been extremely welcoming, they reported, and despite being part of the country's second-largest city, the Culver City neighborhood, where the store is located, has a very close-knit, small-town feel. The Ripped Bodice, said Leah, is both a community bookstore as well as a genre-specific store, and even neighbors who don't read much romance have welcomed the store.
"There are lots of people in Culver City who are excited to have a bookstore, and they don't really seem to care that they don't read the genre," said Leah. "Some are very willing to try to explore."
"I was really happily surprised by the neighborhood reaction," said Bea. "It feels like the other business owners in the neighborhood are really rooting for us. It's been a very positive experience."
Many people come to the Ripped Bodice to shop for gifts, added Leah, including cards, books, clothing items and jewelry, and if a customer is looking for a book that isn't part of the romance genre, they will special order it. At least once a day someone calls the store looking for a non-romance title. "If you want to support an independent bookstore, we're happy to try to get you anything you want," continued Leah, "but we make it clear on the phone we're a romance-only bookstore."
Although the sisters always wanted to open in Culver City, their current location, at 2,100 square feet of retail space, is bigger than what they had initially envisioned. In October, when Bea and Leah launched their Kickstarter campaign, they were thinking that a store around 1,600 square feet would be ideal. And while Culver City was always their goal, the sisters did due diligence by looking at other L.A. neighborhoods, including Santa Monica, Venice, Downtown, Larchmont and even Pasadena, but ended up reassured that Culver City was the right choice. In Culver City, there was one other space that they liked, but Leah and Bea did not see eye-to-eye with the landlord. Instead, the sisters found a larger-than-expected location that was still affordable and is owned by a landlord with whom they immediately connected.
"This was our first foray into commercial real estate, and we just got so lucky," said Leah. "They seem genuinely as invested in our business as we are."
"Our landlord is truly one of the nicest, most generous, caring people," added Bea.
Over the past few months, Bea and Leah have been expanding within the store. The initial inventory, Leah explained, was put together with help from a Baker & Taylor list, the sisters' own personal tastes, recommendations from the online romance community and lists of "must-haves" from romance authors. They tried to include as many of the myriad sub-genres of romance as possible, including historical romance, paranormal, erotica, new adult and more. Based on customer feedback and sales, the inventory has since grown. The store did not have a poetry section at opening, and the classics section has been significantly expanded.
The store's sidelines offerings have grown, too. Bea and Leah work with Etsy Wholesale, adding new vendors every month, and more recently they've begun experimenting with custom Ripped Bodice gear. Ripped Bodice bookmarks and clothing have proven popular, and they've just started a line of Ripped Bodice jewelry.
The biggest change to come over the next few weeks, though, will be the addition of used romance books to the store's inventory. The sisters are renovating a smaller, as-yet-unused second floor room and will stock it with some 5,000 used titles purchased from Books on Broadway in Costa Mesa, Calif. Last month, Books on Broadway was on the verge of closing, but was able to survive by downsizing and moving to a smaller location. Leah and Bea bought that romance stock and drove it in four truckloads up to Culver City. The renovations are coming along, although Leah recently sported a black eye that came from a falling bookshelf. Said Leah, laughing: "That's what it takes to be a small business owner."
Since the Ripped Bodice's opening, the store has also been hosting an increasing number of events. One of the benefits to having a larger-than-envisioned store, said Bea, is that now they can fit more customers into book signings or other events. The Ripped Bodice has three regular monthly events: a stand-up comedy night, a fiction reading series and a community book club. The store so far has been averaging two to four author signings per month, most of which are tied in some way to larger things going on in the romance community. Two July events, for example, are being held immediately before and after the Romance Writers of America annual conference, which begins later this week in San Diego.
At the moment, Leah and Bea are the only staff at the Ripped Bodice. Although both sisters take an active role in all facets of running the store, they've found that each gravitates toward specific tasks. Bea, for example, enjoys researching new titles and recommending books to customers, while Leah likes to design and decorate the store's monthly displays. For the time being they don't plan to bring on anyone else. It would be a huge cost, Bea said, and the sisters enjoy interacting directly with their customers. "I think our love of romance is really baked into the store, and I certainly wouldn't want to lose that interaction," she commented.
Bea and Leah would love to add some kind of cafe component to the store in the next several years. But for now, they said, the plan is to keep growing where they are. --Alex Mutter