A Review-Based Student Publication of Townsend Harris High School

The Classic Critic

A Review-Based Student Publication of Townsend Harris High School

The Classic Critic

A Review-Based Student Publication of Townsend Harris High School

The Classic Critic

The Ripped Bodice: NYC’s First Romance-Exclusive Bookstore

Emily Dong

Independent bookstores have long been struggling to generate stable customer sales. Not only that, but nowadays, people are less likely to go to an actual bookstore to browse and buy a book when you can order them online for cheaper. Nonetheless, during a time when most of us felt isolated and alone during the COVID-19 pandemic, when online school and endless TikTok scrolling became the new norm, a new “trend” began to emerge. People started to pick up books again at an alarmingly high rate, with the hashtag #BookTok accumulating over 175 billion views throughout quarantine. Among all genres of literature, there was one in particular that seemed to make readers feel closer to human connection than the rest. 

Romance novels experienced the biggest increase in popularity in recent years. With the rising demand for stories of people finding true love, entrepreneur Leah Koch took the opportunity to open America’s first all-romance bookstore in NYC, The Ripped Bodice. Literature Editors from The Classic Critic got the opportunity to interview Leah in The Ripped Bodice’s new Brooklyn location and hear her story of how the store came to be.

Emily Dong

“We are both lifelong romance readers,” said Leah, speaking of her and her sister Bea (short for Rebecca), sitting in front of the store’s wall covered in cut-out book pages. “We love romance. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t an all-romance bookstore in the United States, the only one we do have was in Australia, which is a bit far away. So we decided to be the ones to do it. That was not what we had planned on doing.”

Leah and Rebecca grew up in Chicago, and Leah went away to USC for college, staying in LA for 8 years afterwards. Originally working in film and television, Leah felt unsatisfied with her job, “Especially how much you have to answer to other people.” she said. “I was like, I just wanted to do whatever I want. And people were like, ‘well, that’s not very realistic about being an adult.’ Watch me.”

Always dreaming of going into business with her sister, Leah made a Kickstarter to generate initial funds to open the original Ripped Bodice location in LA. The store opened on March 4th, 2016, and performed extremely well. When thinking of expanding the business, she chose the store location in Brooklyn to be close to her new baby nephew. “The family thing is a big part of it. Because I know how hard it is to open a store. I’ve done it once before. And I felt like I really wanted to have a support system around me.”

Leah built and decorated everything in the store themselves, even documenting her progress with TikTok videos of painting custom designs of the floor and adding other improvements to the used-to-be pet store.

“I’m very particular,” Leah says. “I know exactly what I want. And the person best able to execute my own vision is me. The cheapest person to execute that vision is me. So you know, I love it. And I really enjoy it. However, it’s also to save money, like a lot of people are like, ‘Why are you doing this all by yourself?’ Because I’m free.”

She adds that posting the process of building the store was to promote the business’ authenticity and separate themselves from their large corporate competition, creating intimacy and relatability for customers.

Looking around the store, with its hand-crafted decorations and thoughtfully curated shelves, it is easy to recognize the passion and devotion Leah holds towards romance. “I was really drawn to romance because I felt like, you know, especially when I was, you know, 12, 13, 14, which is obviously the worst time ever, I felt like these books put a lot of weight and importance on ordinary people’s lives. And it kind of made me feel like when I was an adult, my life was gonna be important.” 

Emily Dong

Romance novels felt different from what Leah had been reading in school, and while she values all that the classics have to offer, she feels that school projects and assignments “can reinforce the idea that reading is like a chore or homework or it’s not fun. So I think that romance really helped me learn that reading is supposed to be fun.”

For all of its popularity, romance also has its fair share of critics. “I think as a general matter,” she says, “most people who sort of form opinions about romance have never read one and don’t really understand it. I think romance is a uniquely teased genre, because it’s primarily read by women and written by women. Not exclusively, but primarily, it often contains sex and sexual pleasure and explorations of that, which, as a society we’re not super down with. And its primary focus or goal is happiness and joy. And, as a society, I think this is quite an American thing, we’re basically taught that suffering is the prime thing you can do. That it’s what makes you strong. And when you face hardships, you find out who you really are, blah, blah, blah. All of that can be true, but I think as a society, we revere suffering over joy. And that’s a shame. Because suffering is suffering, and it’s not fun. And people are always going to suffer. That’s just the human condition. But I think if we spent more time encouraging people to seek out joy and happiness, people would be happier.”

Romance is often viewed as a “guilty pleasure,” a phrase which Leah especially dislikes. Many readers of other genres tend to look down upon romance readers, saying they aren’t reading “real” books. We shared our personal experiences of this negative stigma, which are experienced both online and from people at school. 

Emily Dong

“I think, if you were to ask someone on the street, ‘Name five things that you consider a guilty pleasure,’” Leah replied,  “I guarantee at least four of them are things that are traditionally enjoyed by women. So it’s like boy bands, makeup and reality television or celebrity gossip, or, obviously romance novels. There are so many things that are inherently generally enjoyed by women. And for some reason, I wonder why. Those are the things that everyone’s like, ‘Oh, this is a guilty pleasure.’”

With romance’s cult following online, many new terms have emerged to define different elements of its books that are often reoccurring. Girls often post about their favorite “book boyfriend,” or male character in a romance novel that they particularly loved. Leah expressed how book boyfriends often set positive examples of how men should behave when in a relationship with a woman, and can help readers realize the standards they should be setting for themselves and the type of people they would want to date. She mentioned how a romance novel can almost be seen as an “instruction manual” for men, as they can take inspiration from popular book boyfriends. 

As books become more and more popular among our generation, we see the critical role media plays in encouraging people to get into reading. The BookTok side of Tik Tok not only opens people up to different genres of books, but it helped many authors rise in popularity due to users sharing their book recommendations. Romance will continue to be a beloved genre by many because of both its realistic and unrealistic plots and characters, its lessons and takeaways readers can leave with, and the sheer happiness that hopeless romantics can feel while reading. It was an immense pleasure for us to visit the store and have the opportunity to speak to Lea and learn about her story behind the Ripped Bodice and her opinions on romance novels. 

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About the Contributors
Emily Dong, Literature Editor
Emily is a junior at Townsend Harris High School. She likes to spend her free time indulging in good shows and reading books, while staying comfortable in her bed. She also started the new book club, called On the Same Page, with her friends to further foster her love for reading!
Abigail Kronenberg, Literature Editor
Abby is a junior at Townsend Harris High School. She loves reading, Taylor Swift, boba, and chai lattes. You can find her on the soccer field with the school team or reviewing her latest read.
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