In August, sisters Leah and Bea Koch opened the second outpost of their bookstore dedicated to the romance genre, The Ripped Bodice. (The first is located in Los Angeles.) But first, they had to transform the interior of a pet store, complete with drop-ceiling and tan slat walls. And that required a lot more demolition and sweat equity than is typically associated with the book trade.
Leah spearheaded the project—and did a huge chunk of the work herself, along with family members and some assistance by friends. Along the way, she started chronicling their efforts on TikTok, and followers watched as she did things like tear out the existing ceiling and paint the floors herself, using stencils to create a cheerful geometric pattern of black and white flowers on a pink background.
The results are delightful, a bright space filled with colorful books and repurposed thrift store finds. Plus there’s something deeply satisfying about seeing a painted floor—a technique that’s seeing renewed interest, but was also popular in the 18th and 19th centuries—in a store called The Ripped Bodice. It’s a cheeky modern spin on a centuries-old practice, which is something you can say about a lot of the novels they sell, too.
We reached out to Leah to learn more about why she opted to get so hands-on, the hardest and most rewarding parts of the project, and what she chose not to do herself.
Dwell: Set the stage for us. You get the keys to this place. What kind of shape is it in? Does it look like a bookstore at all?
Leah Koch: The first time we saw it, the previous business was still occupying it. And it was a pet store. And they just had very different needs. They had these really big shelves, so it seemed very small, because there were all these very narrow aisles. There was a drop ceiling, with the acoustic tiles they have in schools, and the floor was seven different materials. And I brought my sister and my dad to see it, and they were like, why is this the one that you want? Because absolutely everything has to be done, so I’m going to get to do it exactly the way I want it. And that’s going to contribute to the price being right, because we’re going to do a lot of work.
I had a lot of vision, and they will certainly admit now that they were trying to see the vision but it was a bit difficult. There were some things that we were just never going to be able to tell—especially the ceiling—until we ripped it down. There was always a chance that it was just going to be horrific.
Did you go into the whole real estate search thinking you’d find something and renovate? Or was it more that you found the space and decided you could do it yourself?
I would say probably a little of both. Because we already have one store and I have so much more knowledge about exactly what I wanted, and also my own enjoyment of DIY and renovation, I think I was unconsciously at first looking for something that needed a lot of work. We saw a space that was nicer, and Bea and I were walking around and she was all enthused and I was being grumpy, and she was like: It’s too nice, right? There’s nothing for you to do. And I was like, yeah, I don’t like it. I think I’d already seen the space [we ended up in] at that point, and I was excited about all the possibilities.
The landlord and I came to an agreement about what he was going to do and what I was going to do. They rebuilt the floor, because it was in really bad shape, and then I was going to put the finishing on it the way that I wanted. When they handed over the keys, it’s supposed to be white box, which is exactly what it sounds like. Which it basically was, but there were legitimately holes in the wall. And then I made it look way, way, way, way worse, before it looked better.
The first thing that we did was the ceiling. We took down all the acoustic tiles, we took down all the metal that holds that. And then there was the ceiling that was underneath that. That was also in pretty rough shape. And I wanted to take that down as well. So we argued about it for a while, and then I won, because I just did it. And that one was made of plaster and lathe, and also all the lights were in the drop ceiling, so there were no lights. We just turned it into this dark cave of mountains of trash and plaster. And then we put it back together.
What was your experience level going into this?
I have no formal training, but I’ve always been really into DIY, crafting, anything where you do it yourself. But with the store, my construction skills definitely developed a lot. And when I was young, my dad was super handy. He taught me a lot when I was growing up. The most experience I’d had is when I flipped a one-room cabin, about three, four years ago, out on my sister’s land in Joshua Tree, where she lives with her husband.
So I definitely came into this with experience. But there is a gene that some people have called delusion. And my general philosophy is if I can’t do it, then I’ll hire somebody. I know how to wire a light fixture, but not how to move the power. I absolutely will hire people when I need it, but I might as well try first. And if I can save money and learn how to do something, then great.
What was the single hardest thing you did? What was the thing where you were like, oh my god what have I done?
I painted the floor with this stencil pattern. I had this pattern that I thought would be really cool on the floor, since we were going to have to finish it, and I thought I was going to get it printed on custom vinyl. I got a couple of quotes for that, and it was going to be $27,000. And I did not have $27,000.
So I did some research about other ways to execute it. I was not 100 percent confident that it was going to work. I tested it out, I did an hour or two of work, and it became apparent that number one, it was going to work, and number two, it was going to be just an absurd amount of time and labor. It was certainly the most time-consuming, but it ended up being the absolute most satisfying part, and it’s everybody’s favorite thing.
When we pulled down the plaster ceiling, it was then on the floor. And we had to clean it up off the floor. And it’s really heavy. We had snow shovels, and we were scooping the plaster into trash bags for someone to come pick up. And each bag weighed, I don’t know, a bazillion pounds. And it’s one of those things where at that point, there’s literally nothing else to be done, you have plaster all over the floor and you have to clean it up. And that is very much like, welcome to the consequences of your own actions.
Was there anything in particular where you got halfway in and decided it was time to call a pro, or where you just said from the jump that you weren’t going to touch it?
Basically anything that impacts the exterior structure of the building. We needed a new window, and I am not capable of doing that correctly. Somebody else did the window.
And then the other thing, we needed a very large sign. Which I honestly would have liked to do myself, but New York rules are really complicated. You have to have permits, there’s rules, and I said, you know what? I think it’s just better if I let someone who’s been doing this for 40 years do it.
Is there anything that surprised you in a positive OR negative way? Anything that caught you off guard?
The first week I was just like, wow, anybody who does this for a living, I’m very much in awe of their physical stamina. I was putting my hands in ice baths the first week.
It’s not like I didn’t know that I was going to be happy and satisfied with it at the end, because presumably that’s why I did it in the first place. But it was just incredibly satisfying. It’s hard to really process it while you’re in the thick of it. As we were getting to the end and I was editing TikTok videos that showed the whole process, I was just like, holy crap, the distance we have come!
Top image by Megan Kantor
Inside “Drag Race’’ Icon Detox’s Home Renovation Disaster
Samin Nosrat’s Kitchen Is a Small and Efficient Dream