My introduction to romance was dim and dusty. I was about 11, playing a solo game of spy, snooping around the house with my grandpapa’s magnifying glass. My mother’s closet was the last stop on my trail, and I decided to open one of the cardboard boxes she kept in the far corner. As I lifted the flaps, dust rose. I smothered my sneeze, and my eyes took in the dozens of Harlequin and Silhouette romance novels stuffed into the box.
I secretly began reading her novels whenever I could, and was especially intrigued by the “chemistry” the main characters always felt upon first meeting.
In the real world, when you are years into a relationship, chemistry can seem … let’s just say … elusive at times. Luckily, there are ways to set it to cooking again. One of my favorite local spots for sensual inspiration is downtown Culver City, a quaint and walkable area rich with intimate restaurants, bars and specialty shops.
To set a romantic mood, start on Culver City’s Main Street at The Ripped Bodice, the romance bookstore owned by sisters Leah and Bea Koch. The front window is a wonderful conversation starter with its elaborate displays and signs that are the sisters’ special blend of funny, smart and stimulating. “The heart wants what it wants,” a sign in blood-red letters once announced, “and it wants books.”
Whenever I walk in, I am blown away by the design. Books-as-art and heart-shaped lights dangle from the ceiling, romance novels in every imaginable genre line the walls, and you can even choose a book wrapped with gift paper and labeled with a teaser – because shouldn’t romance always include an element of surprise?
There’s a card catalogue, for crying out loud; Victorian chairs; T-shirts with sassy sayings; Ruth Bader Ginsberg dolls; Butterbeer candles; and books on sexual health and wellness, sex and disabilities, plus feminist and resistance-themed titles. My favorite area is the dim stairwell leading to the second floor, because the wall at the top is papered over with yellowing book pages and a life-size silhouette of a woman engrossed in reading. The second-floor room, which feels like a mini-library, is stacked with classics, including those old Harlequin and Silhouettes I used to sneak and read.
There’s no need to sneak at The Ripped Bodice, though. From its name to its bold displays, the message is clear: Find and embrace your own brand of romance here. And bring your partner. “I truly love it when couples shop together,” Leah Koch says. “I think that romance novels in particular can spark so many great conversations between romantic partners. We are always encouraging people to tap their partner on the shoulder, point to the page and say, ‘Hey this, this seems sexy!’”
After you finally drag yourselves out of The Ripped Bodice, stroll down a few paces to Milla Chocolates, founded by award- winning chocolatier Christine Sull Sarioz. These dark pieces of ecstasy are little geo-metric works of art that you will not want to mar with your teeth, but will be glad you did. I love the Manhattan (filled with whiskey and vermouth like its cocktail namesake) and the cardamom bonbon.
Drawn to the name, my husband and I recently stopped in Make Out café for lattes, then had dinner in the grand lobby at Culver Hotel. A national historic landmark, this 1924 flatiron building slices the sky with its impressive architecture. Once owned by Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne, the interior of the hotel transports you to another era with plush velvet Victorian furniture, live jazz, and a screen playing classic movies on silent. The candlelight in the room makes everyone beautiful.
We snuggled by the fireplace and ordered the oysters on the half shell. Because … chemistry.