Small Business

A Bodice-Ripper Set in L.A.: This Bookstore Found a Niche in the Amazon Era

A Kickstarter-funded shop in a billion-dollar industry aims to make the genre more inclusive and diverse.
Photographer: Getty Images

As startup ideas go, a brick-and-mortar bookstore selling only romance novels doesn’t sound particularly promising. Amazon.com Inc., after all, dominates retail book sales, romance fans tend to prefer reading on electronic devices, and the genre isn’t the kind of highbrow fare featured at most of America’s remaining independent booksellers. Yet two years ago, sisters Bea and Leah Koch opened The Ripped Bodice in a peppermint-pink storefront in Culver City, Calif., piling the shelves with titles such as Bliss, Sweet Revenge, and Camelot Burning. “We get a lot of customers who say, ‘I’m not a romance reader,’ then they wander around the store and say, ‘Oh, I’ve read that book! And that book!’” says Bea, 28, a graduate of Yale and New York University, where she wrote her master’s thesis on historical romance novels.

Romance, the sisters say, has increasingly literary aspirations and can make a serious feminist statement. The genre makes up more than a third of the U.S. publishing market, according to researcher Nielsen BookScan, with sales topping $1 billion annually. And while romance fans are twice as likely as readers of literary fiction to go digital—e-books represented 61 percent of romance sales in 2015, Nielsen says—they’re exceedingly loyal. Nielsen says 15 percent buy a new title at least once a week and 6 percent do so more than twice weekly. True fans “will read ten $2.99 e-books, then buy physical copies of the two they like best and put them on the ‘keeper’ shelf,” says Leah, 25.

Bea discovered historical romance as a girl: “I loved any book with a pretty dress on the cover,” she says. Leah started reading her big sister’s hand-me-downs, though historical novels weren’t really her thing. “I was like, Oh, I wonder if these kinds of books exist where the people wear jeans. Turns out there are,” she says, sitting next to her sister on the velvet Victorian fainting couch that’s a centerpiece of the store. But they could find the novels they craved only at used bookshops, big-box outlets, or online. “We would have rather gone to an independent bookstore,” Bea says, “but they just didn’t exist.”

Two years ago, the pair launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a shop and soon raised $90,000. Kickstarter “allowed us to immediately connect with people who would be our customers,” Bea says. “We still get people coming in who say, ‘I’m a Kickstarter funder. ’” They rented a concrete-floored location on a commercial strip just across the Los Angeles city line, stocked up on the latest from authors such as Nora Roberts, Beverly Jenkins, and Eloisa James, and in March 2016 opened their doors. One corner is called Fitz’s General Store, devoted to merchandise—tote bags, calendars, candles—featuring their Chihuahua, Fitzwilliam Waffles (after Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). “He’s very popular,” says Leah, who posts the hours when the pooch is likely to be in the store so fans can time their visits. The sisters say sales grew about 20 percent last year. About 81 percent of their sales are in-store.

More than four-fifths of romance readers are women, and the Kochs try to foster a sense of community with book signings, writing workshops, and stand-up comedy. Online, they have Facebook and Instagram accounts where they post recommendations and encourage discussion, and their website offers a link where new authors can submit their work. The store stocks stories for all ages: feminist children’s books such as A Is for Activist; middle-grade offerings with female heroines that highlight girls’ emotional lives; young adult titles where things start to get risqué; and novels featuring characters of all ages, such as Late Fall, by Noelle Adams, which is set in a retirement home.

The sisters see themselves as evangelists who can help the romance trade serve a wider spectrum of readers. Last year they conducted a survey that found only 7.8 percent of romance writers are people of color—even though fans are increasingly nonwhite. “Women of color have been reading romance forever,” says Bea. Hoping to inspire writers from different backgrounds, the store goes beyond steamy Victorian or Edwardian bodice-rippers and includes what the sisters call “fine smut” in categories such as LGBTQ, Spanish, cowboy, and “bikes and tats.” “We have an extremely diverse customer base,” Bea says. “More inclusive romances sell better. And we want more of it.”

    BOTTOM LINE - The Koch sisters, who grew up on a steady diet of romance novels, say they can create a thriving business selling the genre even in the Amazon era.
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