Romance is a billion-dollar industry. In 2016 these novels made up 23% of the overall fiction market, and they consistently outperform all other genres. But while we’ve reclaimed the rom-com in film, these books are still often relegated to being “guilty pleasures” or considered “mommy porn.” This week we’re discussing these overlooked, often powerfully feminist books—that just so happen to have a happy ending.
"How many comic-book stores are there across the country? Even in small towns they’ll have a comic-book store. But romance outsells comics by a landslide. Pure dollars and cents. So we thought if comic books can survive in midsize towns, we can survive in [Los Angeles], one of the biggest cities in America," says Leah Koch, who cofounded The Ripped Bodice—the first romance-exclusive bookstore in the country—along with her sister, Bea.
For the Koch sisters, romance isn’t just business. It’s personal. As a preteen, Bea was obsessed with historical fiction. But at her local Barnes & Noble, romance and historical shared a section. So one day while scouring the shelves, she decided to take a Regency romance—a subgenre set in 19th-century England—for a spin. She never looked back. Eventually Bea got her younger sister hooked on them too. (Though Leah preferred a heroine in jeans and Nora Roberts's modern take on the genre.) "What appealed to us about romance is that it’s a whole genre that really centers on women’s inner lives. Their thoughts and emotions," says Leah. "And when you find it around 12 or 13 [like we did], when everything in your mind and body is exploding, it’s very comforting to be able to read about these adult women who are grappling with love and relationships, in addition to having cool careers and living in cool places."
So years later, when the two discovered that the only romance-focused bookstore in the world was in Australia, they knew they’d found their calling. They set out to make their teenage dreams come to life—by way of a cozy corner shop where each and every section is brimming with the stories of women’s richest desires. And to fund The Ripped Bodice, they sought out the women they knew were just as desperate to have a shame-free space to celebrate the genre: their fellow romance devotees.
"We launched on Kickstarter, and most of our donations came from strangers—90% of the people were like, 'God, I wish this was in my town,'" says Leah of their campaign, which raised over $90,000. "But because there wasn’t another one in the entire country, most people who were donating didn’t even live in L.A. They just felt so strongly that this was something that our community needed. We were getting donations from all over the world. People who might never make it to the store, but felt like this was something they wanted to be a part of."
The Ripped Bodice, which counts Stacey Abrams as a fan, officially opened in the Culver City, California, in 2016. With books hanging from the ceiling, walls of antique bureaus that look like they’re straight from a 19th-century heroine’s boudoir, and a one-eyed Chihuahua roaming the aisles (their bookstore dog, Fitzwilliam Waffles)—it’s every inch the fantasy. But its impact on the community has been real, and meaningful. The shop has become a staple for prominent romance novelists on tour, as well as a bucket-list destination for readers who for far too long felt marginalized within the greater literary world. And in response to their visitors' frequent requests for more diverse stories—"Customers would walk in the door saying, 'I want books with an Asian heroine. Do you have any books about people with disabilities, or with Muslim characters?'" says Leah—they now publish an annual diversity report, advocating for more nuanced stories in the genre.
Then in 2018, in true meet-cute fashion, a mystery woman walked into the shop and offered them an opportunity to reach an even wider audience. The Ripped Bodice is only a few blocks away from the Sony Pictures lot. So when executive vice president of drama development Lauren Stein got wind of her new neighbors, she saw an opportunity. As the studio behind the juggernaut Outlander TV adaptation, Sony knows the value of a good romance. So execs tapped the Koch sisters to help them find the next great love story, giving them an overall deal to develop romance-focused projects.
With the rom-com renaissance well underway, it seems obvious to turn to romance novels for source material, but the Koch sisters say the books are shockingly underutilized. "Hollywood ignores the romance genre as a possibility for adaptation, with the exception of places like Lifetime or Hallmark," says Leah. "[Because] Hollywood executives are men, and they’re just not that interested in a genre that’s dominated by women."
But the Koch sisters, and the all-female team they work with at Sony, are aiming to change that—with two highly confidential projects already in production. Of their work as the cool whisperers of romance, Leah says, "[Our goal] is to bridge the gap between Hollywood and the romance community. To bring the authors that our people are really excited about to the screen."
Samantha Leach is the associate culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_sleach.
Originally Appeared on Glamour