With romance novels more popular than ever, it feels right that The Ripped Bodice would debut a second location in New York. Founded by sisters Bea and Leah Koch, the shop was hailed for its innovative concept when it originally opened its doors as the first all-romance bookstore in the country in Culver City, California, in 2016.
The new independent bookstore is situated on a bustling Park Slope block, and the interior of the picturesque, feminine pink-and-white space is the stuff of Pinterest daydreams, complete with custom merch like toile totes and playful bucket hats, book pages on the walls and an events space in the back—and of course, rows upon rows of romance.
The popular bookstore is named after the “bodice ripper,” a controversial historical sub-genre of romance, with book lovers questioning whether they should retire the title or reclaim it—the Koch sisters decided on the latter.
At the time of the original store’s opening, romance novels were still a bit of a guilty pleasure, perhaps meant to be read in private, instead of on a busy subway. This was just a few years after 50 Shades of Grey was first published, when the genre was just starting to be socially acceptable book club fodder.
I started reading romance novels in my early teens, devouring sports romances by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and keeping up with all of the Regency novels from Lisa Kleypas. In the pre-Kindle days, I’d pick them up at my local Barnes & Noble, where I’d hide out in the dark, tucked-away romance section, which encompassed just a few shelves of the enormous store, while hoping no one would find out about my secret shame. The Ripped Bodice is the polar opposite of that dank B&N aisle, offering a fun, inviting space with every type of romance, from rom-com to Regency, for all readers, from beginners to experts.
“I think that has to do in general with a better societal understanding of how misogyny and sexism was impacting that shame,” The Ripped Bodice co-owner Leah Koch suggested when I mentioned how things have changed in the time since I hid out in the romance aisle as a teen.
Even in the years since the first store’s opening, the genre has exploded in popularity. Now, romance novels are inescapable. Swipe through TikTok and BookTok influencers are proudly talking about their favorite rom-coms. Turn on Netflix and everyone’s going wild for Bridgerton. Head to your local bookstore and contemporary romance novels line the shelves, with authors like Colleen Hoover getting entire displays dedicated to their works. People bring their significant others to browse, instead of downloading Kindle titles in secret.
Leah believes all romance book trends are cyclical; however, one recent pervasive trend is younger readers looking for love stories, with Gen Z driving up romance sales. Gen Z’s acceptance of the genre is largely due to the popularity of the books on TikTok, where teenagers with large followings discuss their favorite romance novels. Now, big chains like Barnes and Noble have shelves full of “TikTok favorites.” The romance aisle is no longer delegated to the back of stores; instead, these novels are full frontal.
The rise of romance novels on TikTok during the pandemic is one of the factors that has “drastically lowered the average age of our customers,” according to Leah, who sees the shift as “fantastic, because that’s how you get a new generation and continue.”
The age of readers isn’t the only thing that’s changed—the covers of romance novels are unrecognizable from the ubiquitous shirtless male model photos of the past. Instead, cheerful illustrated couples now typically adorn the covers. Much like the former carbon-copy Fabio-style photographs, however, current romance novels look interchangeable, whether the book is a New Adult hockey romance or a steamy read that borders on erotica.
Another big update is increased inclusivity in the genre, although there’s still a long way to go. “There’s been good movement on racial diversity and diversity of queer romance—not as much as we’d like, but definitely improvement,” Leah said, referencing the “State of Diversity in Publishing” report the sisters update on their website.
Leah and Bea are major advocates of more diversity in romance, especially since Young Adult novels tend to be much more inclusive. “We were saying to people, ‘These young people are used to reading diverse books that actually reflect the world. And if they get to [adult] romance and it’s all straight white Christians, like they’re not going to stick.’” The store houses plenty of queer romances, including authors like Ashley Herring Blake and Alexandria Bellefleur.
There are also more romance novels that crossover into the mainstream.
“Rom-coms are always going to be popular,” Leah explained, but now, people are looking for books that make them feel “big emotions.” Leah is seeing “really buzzy emotional contemporaries” flying off the shelves, surely aided by the widespread popularity of Colleen Hoover’s viral tearjerkers. Recent examples include Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan, Things We Never Got Over by Lucy Score and Every Summer After by Carley Fortune.
Alternatively, what Leah called “off the wall erotica” has been equally popular as “almost the opposition” to the more maudlin novels, with books starring gargoyles, ice planet barbarians and kraken sea monsters as the swoon-worthy heroes. Leah’s a fan of these books because they “really do not take themselves seriously” and are a bit more “tongue in cheek” than “deeply felt fantasy or paranormal, where it’s [all about] world building.”
“A lot of those are very well-written and, you know, better than they need to be for being about a kraken,” Leah said. No matter what you’re interested in, from the moment you walk into the bright and airy store, the staff is ready to help with recommendations, which they tailor to the individual shopper through a series of questions.
In Los Angeles, the store receives a mix of visitors, from dedicated romance readers to people who wander in by chance—everyone is welcome. For newcomers to romance, the first question is what type of book the person usually gravitates towards, which is particularly important since Leah feels like she has “one shot” to convert a reader. For example, if someone loves World War II epics, Leah wouldn’t “turn around and hand them a vampire novel.”
The next question is about what “spice level” they’re comfortable with, which varies greatly from person to person. There are, however, a few widely beloved books that Leah recommends; Emily Henry and Helen Hoang write romances that are “really great introductions” to the genre.
The shop is also well-equipped to help out romance devotees looking for hyper-specific tropes, whether that’s a book on female pirates, werewolves and witches all together, or childhood sweethearts who haven’t talked in 10 years. Another popular ask is for vacation books, as people often want to read a novel that takes place in the same town where they’re traveling.
The Ripped Bodice offers more than just a place to buy books. The New York location already has a packed calendar of events this fall, including a book club and stand-up comedy show. Some of the most popular East Coast-based authors, including Marina Zapata and Casey McQuiston are already on the schedule to give talks and teach romance writing workshops. Whether you’re looking for kraken erotica, the latest hyper-emotional novel à la Verity, or even a moving memoir (the bookstore has a small section of non-romance books they think their readers will love), Brooklyn’s most romantic bookshop has a story for you.
The Ripped Bodice is located at 218 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215. It opens on August 5.