In adult retail, sex sells

July 14, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Public interest fueled the mainstream emergence of adult retail establishments in Washington County, owners and managers at a handful of businesses said.

Paula Kennedy found success in the adult retail business at The Locked Door in Hagerstown by giving customers what they wanted in a store they felt comfortable entering, she said.

"My success is because of the customers and what they requested," Kennedy said. "I didn't just wake up and say, 'Hey, I'm going to open an adult store today.'


"After a while we kept getting constant requests for adult novelties and adult gag gifts," she said. "People kept pounding us for adult toys. They felt comfortable asking for them."

Kennedy sells lingerie, adult novelties and other items in an upscale environment, she said.

"You will lose business if you don't supply what they ask for because they'll drive somewhere else for it," Kennedy said.

Big Al's Movie Outlet opened in Hagerstown about two years ago after store manager Dawn Bell noted there were many out-of-state customers at the store's Martinsburg, W.Va., location, she said.

Most customers bypass the family videos at the front of the store to peruse the adult videos, magazines and novelty items behind a partition in the rear. Adult sales account for 99 percent of the store's income, Bell said.

"Adult, period, has become more mainstream," she said. "You don't have to come down a back alley and go into the back door to get to a dirty book store anymore. Look where we are - we're in the middle of a strip mall."

The mall's accessible location off Dual Highway also appealed to Lisia Thompson, who opened Magical Look lingerie, club wear and adult novelties in March. Thompson felt the time was ripe to open a risqu retail store in Hagerstown, she said.

"It's a lot more acceptable now," Thompson said. "People are changing."

Adult retail customers cross all social and economic lines - from young adults to senior citizens, men and women, singles and couples, housewives, exotic dancers and business people, store owners and managers said.

"We're in the 21st century," Bell said. "Let's hope people are more open-minded."

Changing times

Twenty years ago, merchandise that is carried openly in many adult retail businesses today was considered pornography. Pornography was a hot topic in the county then, said George Michael of Big Pool.

Buoyed by political and community support, Michael and others rallied in the 1980s to oppose the sale of pornographic materials at county convenience stores and adult bookstores in Hagerstown. Several of the stores were located within a few blocks of the Christian school where Michael served as principal.

The anti-porn crusades fueled moral debates, made headlines and helped spark changes.

Pressure from local church groups and others in the late 1980s halted the sale of pornographic magazines at some area convenience stores and prompted a zoning change that forced one downtown Hagerstown adult bookstore out of business and spurred another nearby adult retailer - The Video Store - to fight its closing to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

An employee at The Video Store at 23 E. Washington St. in Hagerstown declined to be interviewed or to provide contact information for the business' owners.

The work of anti-porn groups put a dent in an industry that will continue to thrive until societal values change, said Michael, pastor at Independent Bible Church in Martinsburg, W.Va.

"I think we had some short-term impact," he said. "We didn't expect the law to make people moral."

Answering demand

Paula Kennedy witnessed the public's appetite for adult merchandise soon after she opened The Locked Door with a $7,000 investment in 1991. Sexy lingerie was selling three times as fast as the club wear at her new shop, Kennedy said, and customers flooded her with requests for adult novelty items and gag gifts.

She responded by expanding the lingerie collection and gradually adding such adult novelty items as sensual massage oils. Within five years, Kennedy had opened a second store devoted entirely to adult gift and novelty items.

In October 2001, she opened a third store featuring wigs, footwear, body jewelry and more.

Kennedy spends more than $100,000 annually on Internet, radio, television, newspaper, billboard and yellow page advertising for The Locked Door, The Locked Door II and The Locked Door III, she said.

Her business boasts a Web site that features merchandise from all three stores. She answers donation requests from numerous charitable organizations in the county, she said.

The Locked Door stores attract customers from four states, Kennedy said. Some of them credit her merchandise for adding "romance and excitement back into their love lives."

Kennedy attributes her success to meeting a demand, tastefully and aggressively marketing the product, hiring nonjudgmental employees who adhere to her stores' strict confidentiality policies and the support of her late mother, Joyce Hawbaker, and husband, Neil Kennedy.

"I just kept listening to what my customers wanted and I gave it to them," she said. "No one else had done what I'd done - make it upscale. I brought it to the mainstream."

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