Specialty bookstores abound, whether for cookbooks, comic books, children’s books, or other categories. But when siblings Leah and Bea Koch opened the Ripped Bodice, in the Culver City neighborhood of Los Angeles, there was no other bookstore in the U.S. devoted exclusively to romance titles.

The fact that so many indie booksellers struggle to stay afloat didn’t stop the avid romance readers, who spoke with bookstore owners as well as authors and bloggers in the genre and then took a chance that their fellow fans would support their idea.

“We thought, there needs to be a romance-only bookstore in the United States,” Leah says. “There was an opportunity for us to celebrate the books that we love and to get the community really excited.”

The fact that both sisters had relevant experience—Leah had worked in libraries, and Bea comes from a retail background—helped build their confidence, and they took to Kickstarter in October 2015 to raise funds and awareness. “We wanted to engage the romance community from the get-go, and give them a sense of ownership over the store, which they certainly deserve because they helped us open,” Bea says. More to the point: “We didn’t think a bank would give us a loan.”

The crowdfunding campaign raised $91,000, and the Ripped Bodice opened its doors in March 2016. Fifteen months later, the sisters affectionately refer to the business as a “toddler,” constantly learning new things. They’ve gotten used to the long hours and handling every necessary task: ordering inventory, designing displays, bookkeeping, event planning, and managing social media accounts.

The store hosts readings, book clubs, stand-up comedy nights, and movie nights. A romance writing workshop series, Leah says, came about because of customer interest. “In our first year we heard customers say, ‘Oh, I’d love to write a romance,’ at least once a day. So I said, ‘Here you go, here’s romance writing 101 from someone who knows what they’re talking about.’ ”

Jeanne De Vita, a romance author and a developmental editor at Waterhouse Press, has taught several one-off workshops. Other instructors have included longtime erotica editor and writer Rachel Kramer Bussel and Julia Ganis, an independent editor who has helped shape books by Donna Grant, Tessa Bailey, and numerous other romance authors.

The store carries every subgenre of romance—Civil War espionage, BDSM contemporary, you name it—and the monthly book club’s list reflects this range. In May, the club read Amanda Bouchet’s A Promise of Fire (Sourcebooks Casablanca), first in her epic fantasy-romance Kingmaker Chronicles series; June’s pick was Haven, which launches Rebekah Weatherspoon’s self-published Beards & Bondage series.

“You need to have the flexibility to respond to trends and to what’s selling,” Bea says., adding that displays move every few months. “The physical store is very elastic—our bestselling titles change at astounding rates.” Titles that have sold well recently include The Hating Game (Morrow), a contemporary romance by debut author Sally Thorne; The Thing About Love (Berkley), seventh in Julie James’s FBI/U.S. attorney romance series; and How Not to Fall (Kensington), a first novel by pseudonymous author Emily Foster, whose nonfiction sex education books the Koch sisters also regularly recommend to customers.

That customer base is growing—the store has more than 5,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 3,000 Facebook fans. Leah and Bea try not to worry about the big booksellers; as an independent shop, they don’t see the mass retailers as competition. “We provide personalized curation—a person who knows your taste, can help you pick out the perfect book and a gift to go with it, and can then tell you where you should go eat pizza down the street when you’re done shopping,” Bea says. “You’re never going to get that on Amazon.”

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