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Falling in Love: An Interview with an Owner of NYC’s Only Romance Bookstore

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Pace chapter.

As autumn begins once again, I find myself finding joy in the romantic, nostalgic, and sentimental aspects of life. 

On an early Saturday afternoon this September, I was strolling the streets of Brooklyn until I found the pink front of the store. As I entered, I was greeted by the sight of a busy bookstore, customers chatting with friends and lovers softly laughing with one another. The positive pink and cream colors throughout the store brought a joyous and calming vibe that is much needed in the hustle and bustle of the city. Pages of books line the wall in a collage as books hang as decorations. Unique lighting and floral vines on the wall bring one into a fantastical scene right out of a dream. The fun and feminine vibes of the shop create an atmosphere that welcomes any book lover. No matter what your romantic reading preferences are, you will find the right book for you. Young adult, historical, LGBTQ+, fantasy, contemporary, paranormal, and more can be found on the shelves. Do you have a favorite trope? The Ripped Bodice has recommendations for you. Besides books, The Ripped Bodice sells “trope” tea, bookmarks (some of which you can create your own), tote bags, and my personal favorite, their romance-themed candles (I must confess that I bought a Mr. Darcy candle and it smells heavenly). Why a romance-only bookstore? I sat down with one of the owners, Leah Koch, to discuss the story of how The Ripped Bodice came to fruition.

Her Campus: How did you get into the book-selling business and acquire your own store?

Leah Koch: I had no experience in bookselling, publishing, or anything, and my sister [Bea Koch] and I realized it’s what we wanted to do. I would say it was via a love for romance novels rather than a love for bookselling or business.

HC: How many years have you been in the bookselling business? 

LK: About seven and a half years. 

HC: Why do you only sell romance novels?

LK: Because it didn’t exist at that point, and it was our favorite genre, and we wanted to celebrate it in a way that it deserved, which it hadn’t been.

HC: How did you get the idea to open a bookstore with your sister?

LK: Just through conversations about what we wanted our lives to look like, and what we wanted to do to make money. It was pretty much a lightbulb-type moment, where we were talking about owning a store, what we would sell, and how we liked books, especially romance novels, and we wanted to sell romance novels. Lightbulb moment!

HC: Why did you want to open a second location in NYC?

LK: We were ready for a new challenge, the Los Angeles store is doing great, and we wanted to expand and give other people an opportunity to visit the store. And I personally needed something new to do. New York felt so natural, because of how traditional publishing is based here, how there is a sheer amount of people here, and I have a lot of family over here, including my two small nephews, which is great to be closer to them! 

HC: Why do you think it is important that your bookstore is woman and queer-owned?

LK: In my opinion, people’s values and morality systems impact how they run their businesses, and the more different kinds of people you have running businesses, the more people can see and understand that there’s not just one right way to do something. I also think in terms of representation, for example when I talk to teenagers, I want to make it clear to them that they can have interesting lives without having to be famous. I feel like when we talk about representation, we’re usually talking about athletes, actors, and other famous people. But I think it is equally as valuable for, in particular, queer kids, to know that you can grow up and be a normal adult but have an interesting life. When we talk about the whole “it gets better” idea, we usually talk about a pop star or a baseball player, and it is not like you can’t do that, but most people are not going to do that. The moment that we can normalize queer people in every aspect of society, so it’s not just the actors, not that we don’t need that as well, but we do need people to say “I am a regular person and what you are trying to do will affect me and my life.” I think for a long time there was this narrative about famous gay people, but you don’t hear so much about normal gay people. 

HC: What is your all-time favorite romance novel?

LK: Oh, that’s too hard! You will have to let me say three or four! How about, Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren, Rafe by Rebekah Weatherspoon, and A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall.

HC: Are romance books your favorite genre?

LK: Yes! This would be a weird career choice if it wasn’t!

HC: Is there anything else that you want to tell us more about yourself as a person, your likes, dislikes, family life, etc.?

LK: Sure! My main hobby besides reading is sewing, I mainly make quilts, clothes for my nephews, and presents for friends. As you know, I have a sister and also a brother. I am the youngest of three. I love my nephews and love being an aunt! I really like watching women’s soccer and the Olympics. I get very invested in the games every two years. Ever since I came to New York, I’ve liked trying out new restaurants and seeing Broadway shows.

HC: What characteristics do you think a person needs to be a successful independent bookstore owner? What has been your key to success?

LK: I would say resilience and creativity are the two main things. The willingness and interest to do something not just because that’s the way that it’s always been done, and that’s how people do it, and a continual drive to find new and exciting ways to get people in the door, excited about books, and buying books. Whether that means joining the new social media network or trying new events. I would say resilience and creativity has been the key to my success. As well as a willingness to try things and fail. Belief as well, even though it will take you so far, but it is needed to succeed. Hard work is obviously needed, but it all starts with belief. 

HC: What do you most enjoy about being a bookseller?

LK: I most enjoy getting to be a part of people’s lives in an ongoing way. For example, I’ll be chatting with a customer and they’ll tell me that they have a job interview, and then maybe they will come back to the store the next month and update me about how they got the job. It is really fun, for example, if some customers have a child, I get to see that kid grow up, or if a couple comes in on a date, then a few years later they get married. It is just very fun to be a fixed thing in people’s lives.

HC: What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or a week) do you devote to your business?

LK: That is a bit of a complicated question, as we have only been open at this location for 7 weeks, so right now a lot, probably about 50 hours a week. But at the LA store where everything is established and running smoothly, a lot less than that. It definitely depends on the day, which I thoroughly enjoy. Today, for example, I spoke with my manager and we planned out our schedule for the week, we have five events upcoming this week so we had to plan those out, then I had this interview with you, and then we have an event later today that I am in charge of, so I have to set up for that and run the event. Then I spend a bunch of time on my computer taking care of emails, as well as managing my staff, making sure they’re helping customers and doing other aspects of their jobs. It bounces between administrative things and then actually working on the floor of the bookstore. The workflow essentially ebbs and flows. 

HC: Do you think it’s important for a bookseller to be actively involved in a community? If so, how are you involved in your local community?

LK: Yeah, I think it is important, especially because we want to respond to the needs of the customers, as it is good for business. We are still new to this location, so we are still figuring it out. However in LA, over the years we have formed relationships with people, which manifests in different ways. For example, there is this huge book festival in LA called the LA Times Festival of Books that we go to every year, and other events we leave the store for and go out into the community. Also, years ago we formed a relationship with a teacher at a local middle school near our bookstore, and we do a menstrual drive for the school during the holidays, called Tamponakkah. The problem the school was facing, since it is a middle school, the district would not provide period products (as they said that they did not need it because they were in middle school, which is just biologically inaccurate). The only products available were in the nurse’s office, which was not very accessible. People were asking for access to menstrual products in classrooms, and the district agreed but the district would not pay for them. So we decided to start the drive for the school, in which we get about 2,000 products each year, which is basically enough for the full year. We are not sure what similar thing we will do in New York as of yet, but we know we definitely will. 

HC: What do you think the future looks like for independent booksellers? What do you think you and your fellow independent booksellers need to do to survive?

LK: Right now, it looks very good! I think that the post-Amazon crash was very bad, and still lingers in a lot of people’s minds, but it basically happened 20 years ago now. I think people are still a little bit stuck in that narrative. In fact, more bookstores open each year than the previous year. For the past ten years, we have been on a good projectory. I think as horrible as the pandemic was in many ways, I think it did remind people of the value that independent businesses have in their community, and how people treat their employees when bad things happen. I think it is somewhat similar to when farmer’s markets took off to remind people, “Oh there is another way to buy things.” So yes, I think we are in a good spot and will continue to be, and I am not worried. 

HC: What personal passions do you have that carry over into your book-selling career? 

LK: I guess the belief that all people are equal and valuable, and therefore should be represented in a romance novel. I would say that even though it seems so dumb, discrimination is bad, but not everybody believes that! 

HC: Favorite romance movie?

LK: I would probably say About Time (2013). It is a romance/melodrama about a time traveler, starring Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson. 

HC: What advice would you give to college students today to start their careers?

LK: I say the same thing to pretty much everybody under the age of 25. “Your brain ain’t done growing yet!” Your brain is not done developing under the age of 25. The notion that you have to make all these decisions before you even have the actual full capacity of your brain is wild to me! So, I would just say to change your mind a lot! I changed my major three times. Like, I had a million different jobs I thought I was going to do, but this was not the job I was expecting to have at all. Treat this time of your life as a time to try a lot of different things. Also, the only possible way to get good at anything is to practice. I think people usually associate that term with playing a sport or a musical instrument or something, but it applies to everything, even business. You have to practice literally anything! There is so much emphasis on doing things quickly and being successful right away, which is just very unrealistic. Even if you want to be a financial planner per se, you still have to practice. If you want to train horses, you have to practice. Change your mind and practice, those are my two pieces of advice!

Come visit The Ripped Bodice at 218 5th Ave in Brooklyn to get your hands on a new romance novel to cozy up to with a cup of hot cocoa on the next rainy, fall day!

Olivia Bush is a writer and member of the Pace University Her Campus chapter. They are a second-year student majoring in Film & Screen Studies at Pace. While writing for Her Campus, they enjoy writing about pop culture, entertainment, social issues, and local events. Outside of HCP, Olivia loves creative writing as well as writing essays on their favorite topics. In their free time, Olivia enjoys watching films and logging & reviewing them. They also love reading, making art, exploring NYC, playing with their pets, and journaling.