Toy story: New adult shop has town buzzing
Once upon a time, Charlottesville had an X-rated adult store called the Pleasure Chest. In a town that doesn't go in for flesh peddling in topless bars, the Pleasure Chest didn't survive the 1980s.
In fact, one local video-store owner calls the Pleasure Chest a "study in how to do it wrong" because of its bold advertising and open-door policies.
Today's key word in selling adult items? Discreet. It is possible in Charlottesville to get a blow-up doll, nipple clamps, or a video of Dirty Debutantes– but you have to know where to look.
"We're in a Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson sandwich," says Beyond Video owner Halsey Blake-Scott, whose store carries adult videos– but no novelties.
Mindful that the Supreme Court has never quite decreed that obscenity is protected under the First Amendment, Blake-Scott is well aware that legality and obscenity are still defined by "contemporary community standards." (The doctrine arose in Miller v. California, a 1973 case that's somewhat more solid than Justice Potter Stewart's famous "I know it when I see it" pronouncement in 1964. Miller nevertheless still gives legal theorists some pause.)
Overall, our community standards seem to be pretty open, at least as far as what people do in the privacy of their homes. One word you won't hear on the lips of local sellers of adult products is "porn." But by whatever name, there's still a strong local market for adult movies and sex toys or novelties, as they're referred to in the business. Here's where to find 'em.
When Reines Jewelers was in its Angus Road location behind Kentucky Fried Chicken, you had to be buzzed in through the front door to check out the jewels.
The building's new tenant also has a buzzer, but it's inside the store on a door marked "Adult Material. Must be 18 to enter. ID required."
Ultimate Bliss, which opened July 18, is the new kid in town. Its ad touts "the largest selection of adult VHS & DVD movies, magazines, novelties, & lingerie in Charlottesville."
The store seems innocuous enough to someone walking in off the street. There are racks of lingerie and a case full of lubricants, but nothing particularly graphic out in public view. That's not by accident.
"If someone comes in with small children, there's nothing here that would offend them," says store manager Paul Weber (although kids may be intrigued by the bright colors and fruity flavors of the lubricants).
Owner Greg Sakaf, a former health-care accountant, owns two Ultimate Bliss stores in North Carolina, one in Wilson and one in Greenville, where East Carolina University is located. He deliberately chose another college town because of its allegedly growing and progressive clientele.
From his market research, Sakaf determined that people from this area were driving to Richmond or Roanoke to satisfy their need for adult products.
In the world of adult entertainment, old-fashioned– as in XXX sleaze shops– is bad. "We do not want the old image this business had," he says. "We want an up-tempo image to make sure no one is offended. We're very discreet."
To keep it clean, Sakaf forbids his employees to use slang for body parts or sexual acts. And no pipes or bongs. "That's not the type of individual we want."
"We do nothing that's illegal," he says. Ergo, no child porn or videos with animals. And he stresses that his store is not a pick-up joint.
"It's very well-lit, so a lady can come in if she wants to buy lingerie," Sakaf says. Or something even more intimate.
Manager Weber has to buzz customers into the room holding the adult novelties and videos. He cards a 20-something photographer before allowing her in.
"If I don't think you're 18, or I just want to mess with you," says Weber, "you don't get in."
According to Sakaf, the locked door is not required by any local regulations. "We did that on our own," he says.
A tour of the novelty room with its wall of vibrators makes one thing clear: Ultimate Bliss does have the largest selection of sex toys in Charlottesville. Blow-up dolls include the male construction stud or the female ("naughty Kylie never says no"). Then there are turbo-powered strap-ons and a "Red Hot Poker."
"Well, it depends how big you're looking for," Weber says on the phone to a potential customer, as we look around.
Downstairs, the offerings of the video/DVD room are available for a $5 membership fee and $5 for a two-nights rental. Weber says he carries 1,600 videotapes and 500 DVDs, among which are Sluts in Heat; Hey, My Grandma Is a Whore #2; and Teenage Transexuals.
In keeping with his commitment to discretion, Sakaf declines to name the most popular product. "I don't want to throw it in anybody's face," he explains.
Any complaints? "A guy downstairs," answers Weber, "complained it was too cold,"
Customer reaction, Weber claims, has been along the lines of, "Oh, my God. It's about time Charlottesville got one of these places. Thank you for opening."
Anita Simpkins, who lives in a neighborhood off Angus Road, has not been into Ultimate Bliss, but her initial reaction is that "an adult store with pornographic materials is not a good thing for the neighborhood." She's been working with the city to create a more "family friendly neighborhood," and doesn't believe Ultimate Bliss is consistent with those goals.
Simpkins worries about the type of individuals the store will attract. She says research shows that long-term exposure to pornography is not healthy. "I'm concerned with that material as a whole, and don't want it in my neighborhood," she says.
As distasteful as Simpkins finds the products in Ultimate Bliss, they're perfectly legal. "We do not have an adult entertainment ordinance at this time," says city spokesman Maurice Jones. "There's not much the city could do."
Behind Ultimate Bliss at Big Jim's, a female employee who declines to give her name has yet to visit her new neighbor. "All we've done is just giggle," she says. "It hasn't made any difference except there's less parking."
In the parking lot, a guy who looks like he just left the gym walks to his brand-new Lexus SUV carrying a discreet black plastic bag. He'd probably be pleased to know that if his wife called up to ask what he'd rented, Ultimate Bliss wouldn't tell her unless she had a court order.
Now that's discreet.
Alleyne and Ken Meyri opened a Videos Etc. store in Crozet 19 years ago, and a second store, in Charlottesville, two years later.
The sign on the door to the adult section is pretty clear: "We ID anyone under 80."
"We've been here a long time, and we've had no complaints," says Alleyne. "We don't wave it in people's face."
In fact, walking into the Fontaine Avenue store, a visitor has to ask where the adult section is. Meyri says that in Crozet she might have to prevent a married 17-year-old female customer with kids from coming in because she's under 18. And if you're carrying a baby when you arrive to buy adult products, forget it.
"If you can't leave your kids at home when shopping for adult videos..." Meyri's voice trails off indignantly at the very notion.
Inside the adult room, another sign asks, "Got Lube?" and, much like department store perfume counters, it's a place where you can sample the wares. But the selection of sexual paraphernalia is pretty basic compared to the wide array at Ultimate Bliss.
Meyri says the novelties don't sell as well as the 900 videos each store carries. "Every once in a while we have a rush on them," she muses; "maybe it's the full moon."
Her most popular products? "Vibrators with women; men like these rings," she says.
At first Meyri was concerned about competition from Ultimate Bliss, but now that's she's seen the store and heard from her customers, she thinks Videos Etc.– which charges $3.50-4.50 a night for adult videos– will retain its customer base.
Also, Videos Etc. in Crozet gets a lot of business from Waynesboro, and those customers buy the videos rather than rent them.
Interracial movies do well, says Meyri, particularly the ones starring Sean Michaels, whose website says he's put 12 years of "hard" work into adult entertainment. And porn star/sex instructor Nina Hartley's how-to videos, says Meyri, help couples who have lost their "pizzazz."
She calls it "hypocritical" that Virginia– unlike dozens of states that have dropped such centuries-old "sodomy" laws– still prohibits certain acts between spouses.
"I don't think even God objects to what married couples do in the privacy of their homes," she says.
Videos Etc. doesn't carry "seedy" videos, says Meyri, and all the actors are consenting adults. She adds, "We don't carry anything with animals. We get calls for them, but we don't order them."
The Meyris have been married 34 years. So do they ever watch any of the videos for couples?
"We don't," admits Alleyne. "We don't have time."
A classified ad in an alternative newspaper reads: "Video Viagra! Need a pick-me-up? Over 1,500 XXX VHS and DVDs available for rent or sale. Friendly discreet shopping."
Halsey Blake-Scott, owner of Beyond Video, has been carrying adult material for 14 of the 17 years he's owned his Fifth Street Extended store, and he says there's obviously a market for those products in Charlottesville.
While he declines to say how much of his business is "adult," he says he couldn't be in the video business without them.
Blake-Scott says he's received no complaints about his adult videos, and he insists that he runs a very mainstream business, with one of the largest kids' video sections. The adult videos are kept in a room at the back of the store with a sign that warns, "Adult Area. You Must be Over 18 to enter. No exceptions!!!!"
"You're not going to get in unless you look over 30," says Blake-Scott.
Beyond Video does not carry adult novelties. "I am a video store, not a dildo store," he says.
Blake-Scott seems surprised at Ultimate Bliss' claim that it has nearly 1,600 videotapes. "I spend a lot of time putting new material on the shelves," he says, adding, "I will take them on in video inventory." And he says that some of his $12.99 videos are offered for sale at Ultimate Bliss for $24.99.
Couples-oriented videos are popular at Beyond Video, according to Blake-Scott. He cites the "high quality" work of producer Andrew Blake (no relation to Blake-Scott), an auteur in the world of adult cinema.
As at Videos Etc., also popular are Nina Hartley's how-to videos, which "operate under the premise that no one taught you how to do it right," says Blake-Scott.
While couples-oriented movies have an improved market share, the adult video business is "still predominantly men who are not looking for a glossy cover but who want more explicit material," he notes.
Blake-Scott also owns Sneak Reviews Videos, an upscale video shop known for such art-film fare as Quills and Chocolat. Morally, he says, he objects more to horror movies than to adult flicks: "Why people are not offended by horror continues to baffle me."
As president of the Virginia chapter of the Video Software Dealers Association and a member of the Free Speech Coalition, Blake-Scott suggests that the key to selling adult materials in the Bible Belt is to be sensitive to the community and to keep a low profile.
"I don't want to be flashy, and I'm not going to rub it in people's faces," he says. However, he adds, "I'm not going to bend over backwards for unreasonable people."
In Fashion Square Mall, Spencer is the store beloved by little boys who want a fart machine or posters of rock stars.
But smack in the middle of the gags and gadgets sits an adult novelty section.
True, it's pretty soft-core compared to other local stores that offer adult novelties. At Spencer, you can get an orgasm button, adult trivia games, and discreetly boxed "muscle massagers," including the Pocket Rocket, packaged as the "best mini-massager."
Sales supervisor June Patterson says that a sign in the front of the store warns of adult humor, and that kids under 18 are not allowed in the adult section without their parents. She admits that the rule is hard to enforce, though, since the adult section is in the middle of the store.
"We try to watch kids," she says. "The ones who are giddy are the ones we try to get out."
However, spokesman Mike Champion at Spencer corporate headquarters says the store doesn't have an adult section per se, and it doesn't want to be associated with more explicit adult stores.
He describes the store's merchandise as "irreverent, lighthearted gag items."
According to Patterson, Spencer gets few complaints about its adult novelties. "Generally the ones who don't like it tend to avoid the store," she points out.
Ultimate Bliss owner Greg Sakaf notes that the adult area at Spencer is not partitioned from the rest of the store; he believes that, because Spencer is a large corporation, "They push it to the limit."
"We don't have an adult section," maintains Champion in response. "It's not what you'd find in that gentleman's store." He adds that Spencer is indeed a large corporation, with 900 stores in three countries.
And Champion points out that the Spencer product mix is customized to meet local demand.
Spencer's bestseller in the so-called adult section is the vibrating cucumber a "massaging cucumber," says Champion– for $19.99.
"Most people say they're getting it for a gag gift," says Patterson, "but then they buy batteries, so we don't know..."
The store also sells a lot of sample packs of Motion Lotion, edible underwear, and naughty pasta pretty tame stuff, at least compared to, say, some of the stand-alone orifices on sale at Ultimate Bliss. Champion characterizes the gear as not only irreverent, but "it's really entertainment."
Overall, the best-selling Spencer product is the remote control fart machine, says Champion. Jokesters also can come out of Spencer, ever the gag gift center, and ask, "Is that a Pocket Rocket, or are you just happy to see me?"