(New York Jewish Week) — Just a few minutes after entering The Ripped Bodice, a new romance bookstore in Park Slope, Rose Cohen, a woman in her early 20s, already had two books in hand.
Armed with a list of coveted romance books on her iPhone notes app, Cohen, who lives an hour outside the city, had dragged her best friend Emma on the train all the way into Brooklyn to visit the borough’s newest bookstore, with its bubblegum pink exterior, walls and ceilings decorated in an impressive display of classic romance novels — and of course rows and rows of her favorite genre.
A huge romance fan, she already knew The Ripped Bodice would have all the books she was looking for; she had been following The Ripped Bodice’s evolution at its first location in Los Angeles for years and was eager to visit the Brooklyn store on Thursday afternoon, as she wasn’t able to make it for opening weekend earlier this month.
The Ripped Bodice, a bookstore that only sells the one genre, is owned by Jewish sisters Leah and Bea Koch. They opened the first location in Culver City, California, in 2016 with funds from a Kickstarter campaign. Seven years later, the business was successful enough for them to make the leap to the East Coast.
“We ship all over the country and outside of California, the most common place we were shipping to was New York,” Leah Koch said. Plus, New York is home both to family — the sisters’ father, stepmother, brother, sister-in-law and nephews all live in Brooklyn — and to the historical center of the publishing industry.
After living in Los Angeles for the last 12 years, Leah, 31, has relocated to New York to run the Brooklyn location while her sister Bea, 33, will stay behind and helm the flagship. Having to split up after working together for nearly a decade “is my least favorite part” of opening the Brooklyn store, said Leah, but Bea has already been back and forth several times to help get the store open and has more trips planned in the near future. On the flip side, Leah said, being based in New York opens the door for some of her favorite activities — including seeing Broadway shows and celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays with her family.
Originally from Chicago, the sisters were raised in what they described as a culturally Jewish household. Growing up, “my parents had such an emphasis on education and reading and books,” Leah Koch said. “I think that was directly influenced by their understanding of Judaism as a culture that values education, curiosity and questioning.”
As business owners, those Jewish values and traditions influence the way the Koch sisters run their stores. During the holiday season in Los Angeles, they host an annual drive for menstrual products called “Eight Crazy Nights of Tamponukkah.” They also raised money for abortion clinics in Mississippi.
“I’m not very religious, so my value system is how I interpret Judaism and I don’t believe in the separation of my personal values and my business,” Leah Koch said. “My business is a way for me to put those values into practice — we are able to contribute to causes that we care about and that are directly related to what we sell.” If those more progressive stances might alienate customers, she said, “I don’t really care.”
When it opened, The Ripped Bodice was touted as the country’s first romance-only bookstore.
“The number of people who are crazy enough to want to open a brick-and-mortar bookstore is really small. Within that, the number of people who want to focus only on one genre is even smaller,” Koch said.
But since, several others have opened amid a boom in romance sales among younger readers, driven in part by TikTok’s #BookTok.
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Koch said she has been drawn to romance her whole life — at first because “the weight and importance that was put on ordinary people’s emotional lives,” and later on, because it offered a respite. “It’s a genre of hope and joy,” she said. “When life gets bleak, I continue to find comfort in a guaranteed happy ending.”
Jean Meltzer, a romance author whose characters and stories are Jewish, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2021 that she had turned to the genre as an antidote to most storytelling about Jews.
“I wanted to write a book for Jews where the heroes were sexy, where the men were strong, where the women were beautiful, where they got their happy ending,” said Meltzer, whose third book, “Kissing Kosher,” comes out this month. “I wrote this book primarily for myself, but it was really out of a desire to sort of just create a different type of Jewish story.”
Meltzer’s books are featured at The Ripped Bodice, and Koch said she thought the author was right that romance can be meaningful for Jewish readers. “It’s true for so many different types of people, but Jews specifically,” she said. “[Romance novels] are particularly valuable for people who very rarely see themselves portrayed like that.”
At 1,900 square feet, The Ripped Bodice bookstore has plenty of room to carry all the Jewish romance novels. Cohen suggested “Weather Girl” by Rachel Lynn Solomon. Koch mentioned Meltzer and Stacy Agdern, who write contemporary romance, along with Felicia Grossman, who writes Jewish historical romance set during the Regency period in England.
Along with Jewish romance, they carry stories dealing with all kinds of religion, disability, race, gender and sexuality, as well as some nonfiction about women’s health and sexuality from traditional and indie publishers. They even carry self-published books. “If it exists, we will find it,” Koch said.
The store also sells original merchandise, greeting cards and homemade tea blends named after tropes of the genre — such as an Earl Grey called “There’s Only One Bed” and a lemon ginger named “Can You Zip Me Up?”
Business is already booming in Brooklyn, Koch said. She wasn’t shocked at how many people showed up for the opening, which she guessed was over 1,000. But she said it’s been a welcome surprise at how many have come in the weeks since — on Thursday afternoon, dozens of customers rotated through.
And at least for Cohen, the store has lived up to the hype. “It’s everything and more,” she said.