Lolita Wolf took out a 72-inch pink rope and started to tie up a guest she had invited for a workshop class in Purple Passion DV8, an adult sex novelty shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Eight students followed Wolf’s instructions, practicing three types of knots on each other. Ten minutes passed, four of the students were bound. Kneeling on the basement floor, their faces were flushed by either the tightness of the rope or their embarrassment.
“Now you can be fucked,” said Wolf, after checking every student’s knot.
Wolf launched this workshop in Purple Passion/DV8 (say “DV8” very slowly) seven years ago when it became clear that online sex toy shopping at web shopping giants like Amazon.com was endangering the brick and mortar businesses that once took over 42nd street in Manhattan. Called “Beginner Rope Ties: Wrist, Ankles & More with Lolita,” the workshop has become a popular draw, luring up to more than 200 potential customers everyday.
In the past decade, sex shops in New York City faced various challenges. A legal battle on whether sex shops are legal in New York City was carried out for more than 14 years. Web shopping giants like Amazon and Walmart entered the sex product market with low cost and importation of low priced products made in countries like China and Vietnam where the labors are much cheaper. And of cause, the prejudices people hold on sex shops also steer customers away from local retailers, with the help of discreet online shopping.
In order to help the store tackle those challenges, Wolf started to hold such workshops twice per month three years ago. She is a native New Yorker, who discovered the BDSM (Bandage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) scene in the late 80’s when online meant phone sex. She is also an activist who tries to “defend the sexual freedom for consenting adults and help the BDSM community grow and flourish.”
The class costs $20 per person. It requires a reservation on the shop’s website. One motive is that workshop attendees can get a 15 percent discount off all purchases before or after the class. “The workshops are usually sold out,” said Flax while taking inventory of the black sex belts at the counter.
One of the attendees, Mike Junger, bought two pairs of handcuffs, two ropes and a pair of safe scissors after the workshop. He practiced with the ropes on his own ankles during the class, much to Wolf’s delight. In his Superman T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans, Junger tried to talk with other classmates about the details of knotting and binding, yet the rest of them were too shy to share with him. Rebuffed, he blushed again and again.
It was the fifth time Junger visited Purple Passion/DV8, and he still found things he had never heard of before, including the safe scissors. “The fun of shopping in a retail shop is you can find things you’ve never heard of,” he said. The safe scissors are essential during the sex play, since they can quickly cut off any rope and most of the handcuffs. “You will never find safe scissors online unless you know what they are.”
The workshop has proved to be a successful marketing tool as it increases traffic for Flax’s shop. Hilton estimated that at least 20 percent of the sales come from the workshop promotion. Like many of the other sex shops, Purple and Passion/DV8 has its own website, yet still most of the revenue is made from the retail shop. In fact, the revenue from Flax’s retail shop is 80 percent higher than its website’s. Customers browse online, look for what they want, and come to the shop to “touch and feel the products.”
“Touching and feeling the products,” said another sex shop owner, Aida Bure, is the best reason why customers would choose coming to her store instead of shopping online for sex products. At age 80, Bure still works in A&J Lingerie and More, an adult novelty shop located in the Flatiron area, selling sex toys, costumes and pornographic DVDs. She takes charge of the store’s lingerie costume section, while her son, James Bure, handles the sex toy business. It’s a family business that includes their nephew and cousin’s help.
The shop is on the second floor, with all pink decorations and signboards, right above a wholesale florist store. In fact, the store’s location is one of the reasons why James Bure decided to open it in 2001, after they closed their former shop which had sold women’s and children’s clothes since the 1960s. The business fell off after the millennium, so they decided to start something else. Bure once considered a laundry business, few of which existed in the neighborhood at that time. But a laundromat on the second floor would attract fewer people. Second floor, Bure repeated the words over and over, until an idea came to him: A sex shop should be perfect on the second floor, since “it can give people a sense of privacy and safety.”
On September 11, 2001, the day “the two towers fucking fell,” as Mrs. Bure recollected, Aida and James Bure were busy decorating the shop then in its infancy. When the news hit them, like many other New Yorkers, they thought about leaving. They considered fleeing to other countries, even as far as China, and forsaking everything here, including the shop the family had owned for over 30 years. But besides all the work and time they had put into the store, another reason that kept them in this city is the faith they have in this business, a business that New York City had not yet been ready to embrace.
Things were so different even just 14 years ago, when Bure’s business was struggling together with every other sex shops in New York City. Since 2001, the Giuliani administration had attempted to shut down all sex shops, including those that were operating within what came to be known as 60-40 guidelines, where at least 60 percent of merchandise and displays are not X-rated. On July 21, 2015, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled that video stores, bookshops, topless dancing clubs and sex shops are protected by the First Amendment as long as no more than 40 percent of their offerings contain sexual themes.
The Bures only sold lingerie in the first five years. They worried about the legitimacy of their store might be denied one day. And that’s the reason why the shop is named A & J Lingerie and More. The part “and More” was added after five years. In 2006, Bure started to sell sex toys, the watershed that helped the shop turn around.
It was not a sudden burst of clarity that brought up the sex toy selling. Bure was not certain that people would accept it, especially in a shop owned by a 70-year-old lady and her son. The insecurity that terrorism brought still haunted New York City, as Bure remembered how worried he was that people would run away from the city and how the 30-year-old family business would die in his hands. However, as more customers came to his shop, more varied requests were made. “A lot of customers asked for sex toys. They thought our lingerie was good. And they wanted more than that,” Bure said with a big smile. He was proudly talking about it. He took it as a good illustration that the shop would always try its best to meet customers’ needs. Sex toys brought Bure 80 percent more profit than the lingerie they sold. The success encouraged the family to invest more in the adult novelty business.
It was not an easy decision to open such a shop at that time for this immigrant family. Aida Bure’s husband, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, died 20 years ago, leaving the decision of how to run the family business to his older son, James Bure. When James Bure suggested opening an adult novelty shop, his mother, who is from Puerto Rico, supported him, disregarding other people’s views on this type of business.
An accident happened in her shop that confirmed her support. A woman was looking around for sex toys. A man, who later turned out to be her boyfriend, came into the shop and shouted at the woman loudly, “Why do you need these toys? You got me.” Mrs. Bure was irritated by the man’s “disrespect.” Her son was not in the shop, so Mrs. Bure did not want to act rashly. She simply asked the man out or she would call police, and then she comforted the crying woman. On the same day afternoon, the man came to the shop again by his own, cursing at Mrs. Bure and other salesclerks. This time, James Bure was in the shop. Unlike his mom, Bure rushed out of the back room of the shop and charged at the man. “He grabbed the man’s neck and threw him out,” said Mrs. Bure. “That’s how we treat our customers and those who cause troubles to them.”
Running a mom-and-pop store, Aida and James Bure both said they don’t really care about the competition between their store and the online retailers. Mrs. Bure said she has things that customers can only find in her shop. She picked a box of lingerie from the shelf, on which stuck a small XXL tag. She said these XXL lingerie are for the “big mamas,” which is referred to plus size women. But Mrs. Bure said she never recommend these big mamas lingerie to any customer unless one asks, since customers may feel offended or embarrassed. “That’s how we make customers feel comfortable,” Aida Bure said. She pointed out some other adult novelty shops will recommend products that make customers feel embarrassed, since sex products are different from others.
In A&J Lingerie and More, every customer is given a piece of sheet with price chart, so customers can help themselves till the check. Aida and James Bure think it’s the best way to protect customers’ privacy. Especially as a man who works in the sex toy industry, Bure never takes the initiate to promote or recommend products. “Even in city like New York, people still care about privacy when coming to a sex shop,” Bure said.
That’s also why increasingly more people shop sex products online. Online ordering with discreet shipping saves customers the embarrassment of exposing their kinks to strangers or even people they know. Retailers like Amazon will make sure no ordering record or even searching suggestion showing on customer’s page.
However, James Bure think online retailers actually may more easily expose customers’ privacy. Bure thought the privacy people seek for does not exist online. Companies like Amazon record every clicks online, and they will send advertisements to the customer’s mailboxes, with their recommendations for sex toys based on the customer’ records. And even though the customers can erase the records, after five or six steps, the bank statements will still stay. “But we accept cash,” said Bure. “Cash cannot be tracked.”
Nevertheless, Bure admitted that they cannot compete with online giants like Amazon. When Amazon started selling sex toys in 2005, local retail sex shops started to face the real challenges the Internet brought to them. Some retail sex shops built their own websites to compete, yet none of them can be on a par with Amazon and Walmart. So far, there are more than 60,000 adult toys offered on Amazon.com. For example, an item named California Exotics Butterfly Kiss has 2,080 customer reviews, with 50 answered questions to describe itself. Most of the sex toys on Amazon can be shipped in just one day.
Even though The Bures’ store has gained a five-year continuous growth, the average rent of the neighborhood in the Chelsea area is “threatening the business,” according to James Bure. The rent can be up to $150,000 a month. The average price of the best sellers is about $50, and the Bures earn $25 profit from each, which means they have to sell about 6,000 items in average every month just to cover the rent. Not yet for other costs like salary and utilities .
“For Amazon, there is no rent,” said James Bure. “And it’s very hard for us to hire people with the salary they want when the rent is so high.” In order to cover the high cost, since 2006, Bure decided to improve the product mix. He said by purchasing more upscale goods from manufacturers (yet he refused to name them due to the contracts they had), the profit margin can grow by 50 percent. He also refused to give the cost of any goods, yet he insisted the price is “reasonable.” Actually, even though he wants to knock down some prices, the contracts he made with manufacturers do not allow this. Bure signed waivers with manufacturers giving up any right to change the price. “It’s another reason we cannot compete with online shopping for adult products,” said Bure. “We cannot help it.”
Because of globalization and cheap labor overseas, according to James Bure, most of the sex products selling online are made in factories in countries like China and Vietnam. The cost there is so low that online retailers can buy goods in bulk, ship them to America, and then stock them in the warehouses all over the country. “We cannot compete with them on pricing. All we can do is to make sure the quality of what we sell is good,” James Bure said.
But there is one more thing Mr. Bure cannot do. Though Bure promised that customers can find everything they need in A&J Lingerie and More, the fact is that “what they have is what they have.”
A young female customer stepped in the shop with a smartphone in her right hand. In the next five minutes, she looked around by her own, frequently looking back at the smartphone. A shop staff finally came up and asked how could he help her. The woman showed him a picture on her smartphone.
“Do you have this…” She spoke slowly with deep doubts.
“Nah. Sorry. All we have is what we have.” The staff interrupted her before she finished the question.
“Oh,” said the woman with disappointment on her face. She then returned to her smartphone. She may click on some online shopping apps. Some sex toys may already have been in her Amazon’s cart. She may check them out in the next five seconds. But one thing is assured: none of the thousands of sex toys on the shelf in A&J Lingerie and More is for this young lady.