It’s no secret that bookstores are my favorite places on earth, and The Ripped Bodice in Los Angeles is extra extra special to me. Today I have one half of the sister duo who owns the shop, Leah Koch, with me to talk about Vision in White by La Grande Dame of romance novels, Her Royal Highness Nora Roberts.
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Make sure you check out The Ripped Bodice’s Annual State of Racial Diversity in Romance Report.
Leah spoke a lot about her sister/business partner’s love of Historical Romance. Be sure to check out Bea’s fantastic book Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency.
Books discussed in this episode:
Vision in White by Nora Roberts (Book 1 of the Bride Quartet)
Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts (Book 2 of the Bride Quartet)
Savor the Moment by Nora Roberts (Book 3 of the Bride Quartet)
Happy Ever After by Nora Roberts (Book 4 of the Bride Quartet)
The Newberry Library, Chicago
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer
Now I’ll Tell You Everything by Phillis Reynolds Naylor (Book #25 of the Alice Series)
The Ripped Bodice Subscription Box
I Kissed a Girl by Jennet Alexander
Whiteout by Adriana Anders
Uncharted by Adriana Anders
Powell’s Bookstore Portland
Ripped Bodice Summer Bingo
Ripped Bodice Patreon
(Note: Some of the above links are affiliate links, meaning I get a few bucks off your purchase at no extra expense to you. Anytime you shop for books, you can use my affiliate link on Bookshop, which also supports Indie Bookstores around the country. If you’re shopping for everything else – clothes, office supplies, couches, gluten free pasta – use my affiliate link for Amazon. Thank you for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and for the second week in a row, I’m talking to a bookstore owner. It’s almost like I have an evil plan to convince all of you to open your own. I really hope it works! Today, I’m talking to Leah Koch who, with her sister Bea, is one of the owners of The Ripped Bodice, the only exclusively romance bookstore on the west coast, and one of my favorite places on the whole planet. Leah moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. Preferring the eternal sunshine to Chicago winters, she never left. Her favorite romance sub-genre is contemporary, particularly lesbian. And when she isn’t reading, she enjoys crafts, watching women’s soccer and the antics of her three kitties. Today, Leah joined me to talk about why she thinks Vision in White, by Nora Roberts is the Best Book Ever.
Now, Leah and I talked for almost two hours because we had a lot of ground to cover. But since this is meant to be a shorter podcast, I had to edit out quite a bit of our conversation, which was a drag. Make sure you check the show notes for some extra topics, including the Ripped Bodice’s Annual State of Racial Diversity in Romance Report.
For more on how to support this podcast, Check out my Patreon. For about the cost of a latte, you can have access to it all sorts of extra goodies. Every week, you’ll get exclusive interview clips with my guests that are only available to patrons. I also send out advanced notice of the books we discuss, curated reading lists, my monthly reading wrap-ups including the good, the bad and the DNFs, and essays about the reading life.
Now, back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Leah. Welcome to the best book ever podcast.
Leah Koch: Thank you so much for having me.
JS: Do you remember the first romance you ever read?
LK: No. It would be a lot easier if I did. I just don’t. Bea and I represent the two opposite ends of the spectrum. So she’s older than me and our mother was not a romance reader. But she was an extremely voracious reader and quite obsessed with turning us into readers. So we went to the bookstore as a family. Very frequently to the library a lot as well. We were very fortunate. I think our parents really wanted to build up our libraries, so they would buy us a lot of books. As soon as we were, I don’t even remember, but presumably a reasonable age that we would not harass the other customers, our parents would set us loose and say, meet back here at X time. It was a huge store, was two stories, a huge Barnes and Noble in Chicago, where we grew up. Off we would go. I know for Bea, she was really into history from the time she was very young. She was really into historical fiction. So in the bookstore, historical fiction was right next to romance. So as she tells it, she literally sort of stumbled over there one day and she was, and still is, very into fashion. And there are these beautiful dresses on the covers. Our parents did not put any restrictions on what we could read, to my knowledge. I assume if we’d showed up with something insane, they wouldn’t have let us buy it. But so she plunks it back on the stack and they’re like, okay, whatever. So she gets really into historical romance novels, I’d say probably around age 12. That’s more unusual. And then I am the more typical reader, where you get it from a relative. A lot of times, it’s your mom, your aunt, your grandma. In this case, it was my sister. And I think I probably read I don’t know, one or two historical romances, and was kind of, I like this, but wouldn’t it be great if they were wearing jeans? I just, I wasn’t into the history part of it as much as Bea was. I still am not; we’ve retained these identities into adulthood. So then I was like, I wonder if I wonder if this exists, in modern times, and it turned out it did. In addition to bookstore, there’s an incredible library in Chicago that everyone should visit called the Newberry library. Every year they do a used book sale, which is just the most incredible used book sale in the world, like it fills up this place. And we used to go every year and they would have a whole room of just tables and tables and tables of romance novels for like 99 cents each. I think there was a lot of trial and error, and learning the different sub-genres of romance and the different tropes of romance and, and recognizing books that might be written with older readers in mind versus, what we wanted, which is the more sort of, not YA, but just like, fun. Let’s say the Sex and the City thing. I mean, we’re going to get to this later because it’s why I chose the book that I chose. But I do think that when I discovered Nora Roberts, it was like a whole world opened up. It was a very seminal moment in my romance journey, but we can talk about that later.
JS: Were you ever interested in other genres or have you always been pretty focused on romance?
LK: Yeah, I read all other kinds of stuff. I mean, I still read other things now. YA wasn’t what it is today, but I loved books written for my age. I really debated choosing one of those for this today. I didn’t, because I was scared that if I went back and read one of my favorites, it was going to be disappointing.
JS: That’s the worst.
LK: Yeah. The two books that were, were hugely important to me when I was maybe 13, 14, were Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer. I’m gonna reread it someday. I’m just worried, , I dunno, something bad in it or it hasn’t aged well. And then Phyllis Reynolds Naylor had a series of books that were just called The Alice Series, about the world’s most ordinary girl named Alice. They start when she’s in about fourth grade, and go until she dies, basically. I mean, not really, but basically until she goes to college. It’s one of those things that I just hit it at the right moment and was the exact same age as her. And she would release one or two books a year, like per grade. She was just so normal. She lived in the suburbs of Maryland and had friends and just nothing crazy ever happened in a fantasy sense. I will say there’s somewhat after-school special, like in which everything that can ever happen to a teenager happens to somebody that she knows. Somebody has an eating disorder, and somebody gets pregnant, and somebody does drugs and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But it’s stretched over such a long period of time. And her mother has died. I can’t remember how old she was, but she doesn’t have a mother, which was the point, and neither do I. She’s very close with her dad and I just… She did end the series, the very last book is called Now I’ll Tell You Everything. And it’s from when she graduates college until she’s like 60. It’s truly one of the most vivid memories of my reading life. Again, spoiler for a decade old book, she is going to get married, and her mother has been dead for a long time and she goes up to the attic in her childhood home to get out her mother’s wedding dress. And there’s a handwritten note on top of the dress in her mother’s handwriting. And it says, I know I would have loved him.
JS: Oh my God.
LK: I never cry when I’m reading books. Ever. And I just absolutely burst into tears and was just sobbing. I literally called my father sobbing, which was not a good idea because he thought I’d cut my finger off or something. And I was like, you’re doing such a good job being a parent. He he was like, what the heck is wrong with you? And I was just like, do I tell you that I love you enough? And he was like, yes.
JS: So then you and your sister, you go through college and you’re both still romance fans and you decide to open a bookstore. Can you tell me a little bit about what prompted that decision?
LK: Yes. The only thing I cared about in college was being in California. I went to USC and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Bea went to Yale because she is an overachiever. She studied Renaissance history. Then she went to graduate school at NYU and got a Master’s in Fashion History and wrote her thesis on the fashion in historical romance novels. While she was an undergrad at Yale, she had taken a class called “Reading the Historical Romance Novel,” and it was taught by two professional romance novelist who also went to Yale. She will tell you, and has told me many times, it was incredibly important for her to see these other students at Yale who were really obsessed and interested with this genre and to have it examined in this very academic way. So that, coupled with then doing her thesis, brought her to the same point I was at: not knowing what to do with her life. She came up to visit me in LA in her last semester of graduate school and I was then on a campaign to get her to move to LA. I was driving her to the airport and we decided that was the good time, when we had 20 minutes left, to start the discussion of what we were going to do with the rest of our lives. We sort of came to two conclusions: one of which is that we actually like each other and we’re happier when we live in the same place. And we wanted to be our own bosses, and we wanted to do something that would allow us to explore a lot of different interests and give us a lot of freedom to do all the different things we wanted to do. So the conversation literally went like, what if we had a store that was sort of the home base for everything that we want it to be? Okay. What are we selling at this store? Well, we’re selling gift items and things made by and for women. We really like books, so we should sell some books too. And the books that we like are romance novels. So we should sell romance novels. What if we only sold romance novels? And then we got to LAX. She literally got on a plane and several hours went by and then we call each other and we’re like, I think that’s actually a really good idea. And we really didn’t look back. We were pretty much like, yeah, this, this is a good idea. This is the benefit of youth. I’m still extremely young, but at that point I was very young. And we were, in the way of 21-year-olds, this is the greatest idea in the world and no one’s going to tell us differently. And it’s a good thing we did think that way, because if we’d been older, I really think we wouldn’t have done it. We would have been talked out of it. Because so many people were like, this is a terrible idea. It was really full steam ahead from there. Bea moved to LA when she graduated. We spent the summer putting together our Kickstarter. I had one more semester of school. I graduated in the middle of the year. So I was in school when we launched our Kickstarter. And then I graduated in December and we opened in March. That was March, 2016. And we’ve now been open for five years.
JS: Tell me how you came across this book that we’re talking about today. Vision in White.
LK: This was not my first Nora Roberts. I think in the course of all those used book fairs we talked about, I must have gotten some Nora Roberts. I don’t know if you know this, but she’s written like 250 books. In that exploration of wouldn’t it be great if these historical romances had jeans in them? I think I came across some Nora Roberts. I, again, I don’t remember which was the first one. I was instantly captivated. It was everything that I wanted in a romance novel.
JS: Why don’t you tell my listeners the general plot?
LK: So this is the first in a series of four books about four friends who own a wedding planning business together in Greenwich, Connecticut. Each of them gets a book. The books are super interconnected. We’re going to talk about that. But each one focuses on a specific couple and they each do part of the wedding planning business. So, one of them is the photographer and one of them is the florist. One of them does the cakes and one of them is the planner. The first book is about McKenzie, who’s the photographer. She is very cynical about love because her parents got divorced when she was very young and her dad is extremely absent and her mom is kind of a manipulative horrible psycho. She reconnects with a boy she briefly went to high school with, who she has basically no memory of. And he had this crazy crush on her when they were in high school. And now he is an English professor at that same high school. His sister is getting married and comes to the place where they do the weddings, and they reconnect.
JS: Tell me why this one hit you so hard.
LK: Well, there’s a lot of reasons, but it’s mainly, the four friends that are at the center of it. They have been friends since they were children and they decided to go into business together. And they are romance novels, obviously, but it’s really four books about their friendship and the ways that it’s evolved as they’ve become adults. They’re really interwoven in each other’s lives and it’s the way that they support each other. They’re all business women. They’re really confident about themselves. Mackenzie is very cynical about love. She sort of unsure about the whole relationship thing. But the whole book they’re like, wow, we’re really great at our jobs. And they deal with all these different clients and there’s so many crazy wedding people, and there are really funny moments, with people going crazy at weddings. And they’re just really competent. There’s a phrase we like in the romance community called Competence Porn. It’s just people who are really good at their jobs. He, the hero, has that also. He’s a teacher, and there’s a really beautiful scene, where the mother of a student comes and tells him what an impact he’s had on her son. The other thing I like about this book and really liked about it when I was young and didn’t have the words for this: in romance, there are alpha heroes and there are beta heroes. And obviously there are books that don’t have heroes at all, but we’ll get to that in a second. An alpha hero is probably exactly what you’re thinking of. Maybe he starts off as an asshole or even if not, he’s very dominant, for lack of a better descriptor. And many, many, many, many people like that. And I like that, sometimes, but I think the first time I read this, this is probably one of the first beta heroes I’ve read. Which is a term for a guy who’s not an asshole. I think now these days, those definitions are a little bit simplistic, but we’ll, we’ll hang on to them for now. This is going to sound like a diss to alpha heroes, which it’s not, but I would say a beta hero tends to be less touched by toxic masculinity. So, Carter, that’s the name of the character in this book, he knows right away that he wants to date her. And he’s chasing her as opposed to the other way round. And he is much more in touch with his feelings and emotions than she is. It’s a very much a role reversal. He’s not scared of commitment. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with a hero who is. We’re going to fix them by the end of the book. It’s fine. It just wasn’t the norm in 2009. It’s still not the norm now. It’s better now. He’s a very, I would say, feminist hero. He’s incredibly supportive of her work. He thinks she’s great at her job, but he wants to figure out how to make a relationship work between them. For me, it’s really about the series as a whole. So like, yes, I like this book and I picked this one because it’s the first one, but it’s really about the series as a whole. If you read the next book, which is called Bed of Roses, it’s about the florist. Her hero is super alpha. You get everything in one series. It’s just the most delicious payoff when you get to see somebody develop. I truly think this is one of the greatest examples of this. Parker is the woman who is the wedding planner, and who runs the business, and it’s her family’s home. She grew up super rich and it’s her family’s mansion that they do their weddings in and she is the last book. It is just the most fantastic payoff. You’ve watched her in these other three books be so supportive of her friends and just be a side character. And then she gets her own book. The other option was to do the last book, but it’s just not as good on its own, not as satisfying when you don’t watch her over the three books.
JS: Well, I would even posit that the wish fulfillment in this book is that friendship, those four women. I mean, this is what every woman I know, to this day, every one of my friends would say, yeah, that’s the dream. To live in a compound with my three best friends. Each of us be successful and supportive of each other? That is the dream.
LK: Oh, for sure. I think I was 17 the first time I read this, and I didn’t know I was gay yet. I wouldn’t know for quite a long time. It took me a long time to figure it out and looking back, that is a huge part of why I was so obsessed with this series.
JS: Oh, how interesting.
LK: Because I don’t think I even knew that lesbian romances existed. Even if they did, even if I’d read one, I wouldn’t have been like, oh, this is me, because I didn’t know yet. But I really identified with how connected to their friends they felt, because I felt that way also, and still feel that way. And as you say, like that was the part that really drew me in and I was kind of like, well, the guys are there, but who cares about them?
JS: I’m curious why you chose, a standard heterosexual romance, instead of choosing a queer romance?
LK: It’s a great question. I thought about it because I wanted to choose something that was really fundamental to why I started reading romance. I didn’t start reading queer romance until I graduated from college. I mean, like the very end of college. For one, there just were not that many to choose from. It just had not even entered my consciousness yet. Looking back, I recognize how I was creating space for myself in this story. I think for a lot of young people nowadays, it’s exactly what they do with fan fiction. They take a book or a movie or something with no queer characters and they make them all queer, and it’s great. And I love reading them. I think it’s what many people who, for whatever part of their identity are not, let’s say, the standard, have done for millennia, which is find yourself in that story. I think the other thing about Nora Roberts books is that they feel so timeless to me. I have an enormous Nora Roberts collection displayed on my bookshelf. I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the ones I already have. And because every book has been released like seven times, there are definitely ones that feel dated. Some of her older work is for sure dated. However her work has a very timeless quality for me.
JS: So what are you reading now, Leah?
LK: Well, I’m fortunate because I do this for a living, that I’m usually reading things that are not out yet. We have a subscription box that we send out every month. So I’m choosing the books for August and September right now. I tend to read about two to three books at a time. Right now I’m reading a book called I Kissed a Girl, I assume based on the Katy Perry song, that’s by Jennet Alexander. That’s an FF romance. It’s quite entertaining so far. They work on the set of a B horror movie.
JS: Oh, fun!
LK: Yeah. So one of the women is an actress who has gotten totally pigeonholed into being only in horror movies. And then the other woman is a special effects makeup artist. I’m enjoying that so far. I’m also reading Uncharted by Adriana Anders, who I really enjoyed. The first book in this series is called Whiteout. And it’s about these people who get stranded in Antarctica.The second book, it’s the same, the bad guys are these like shadowy government agency kind of thing. But this time they’re stranded in Alaska.
JS: Are these romantic suspense?
LK: Yes. Which is not generally my jam, because as I said, I’m very squeamish and scared of everything. These ones I like. I’m not sure why. I think I like the really different setting. It’s very adventurey. In addition, the couple is out in the wilderness and they’re trying to get back to warn the town that the bad guys are coming. So, one of them, one or both, or none, of those may end up in our end-of-summer boxes.
JS: We’re getting a little sneak peek here.
LK: I’m actually going on a little trip this weekend to visit a friend in Portland, so I’m like how many books should I bring for two days? And, of course, Powells is in Portland. So she was like, oh, I have to work for a little while. I’m like, great. I will go to Powell’s and you will not rush me.
JS: Really, the question is not how many books you bring to Portland? The question is how many empty suitcases do you bring?
LK: Yeah. Whenever I go to an independent bookstore with someone, I’m always like, can you go get a coffee or something? And they’re like, no, I’m fine. I’m like, trust me. You’re not fine. Like, I’m going to be here for hours.
JS: Let’s tell my listeners how they can find you and support your business, even if they are not Southern California people?
LK: Great. Okay. So first thing is our website. We ship all over the world. The other thing is that we will ship you pretty much any book; it does not have to be a romance novel. If you go on our website and you type in “The Joy of Cooking,” it will come up. We can send you pretty much anything. And we’re very happy to. Obviously if you want recommendations for romance novels and things like that, there’s a section on our website of staff picks, which is a great place to start. You can follow us on Instagram and Twitter. One really fun thing coming up on June 1st, we will start our Summer Bingo, which we have done every summer. This is the fifth year, so it’s a free bingo card, and it has squares with lots of the things we’ve talked about today. So it’ll say something like, enemies to lovers, or takes place at a wedding, or involves a dog, or something like that. You can check off boxes as you read books that meet that criteria. It can totally just be for fun, but also, if you finish a row, you can enter on our website. It’s like when you were little at the library and they give you a prize for reading books? You can enter and we will draw names and some people win prizes. Everybody doesn’t get a prize, but we draw names at the end of the summer and people get prizes and it’s very fun. We also have a Patreon, just like this podcast. Obviously, the number one way to support an independent bookstore is to buy books from that store. But you can also join our Patreon if you like. We give personalized recommendations on there. We do all different kinds of stuff. We do videos and behind the scenes stuff. Oh. And then the box that I’d mentioned, our subscription box. Every month you get two books and little extra items such as a mug or candle or notebook or something like that. People have really been enjoying those. It’s very fun. We have quite a packed virtual events schedule for June. We will hopefully be back to doing some in person events towards the end of the summer, maybe early fall, but we’re we’re still totally online so you can come to any of them, no matter where you live. If you just want to say hi, feel free to shoot us an email or say hi on Twitter and tell us, tell us that you heard us here, and we’ll talk about anything you want to talk about.
JS: I want to thank you for joining me today. This was so much fun talking to you, as I knew it would be, and it’s not going to be long until I can actually come see you and buy things from you in person. And I cannot wait.
LK: Oh, that’ll be so great. So great to talk to you, Julie, and I want you to come in wearing your mask and you’re going to point to yourself and say, I’m Julie. Remember.
JS: I will, I will, because my hair is different. So you’ll never know.
LK: Oh, I look forward to seeing you.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, go to our website. You can also follow us on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram. If you loved this episode, as much as I loved making it, why not leave a review wherever you’re listening. Each review helps new listeners find my work, and I’m so grateful for your help.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.