A couple of years ago, I had this short-lived obsession with how Oakland needed a Good Vibrations in Uptown.
It started when I read an article somewhere about…well, honestly, I don’t remember very many details about it. I don’t even remember enough to make it worth taking a stab at trying to locate it to link to. But it was about some neighborhood that used to be dead and now is like super hip and thriving and so on. Maybe in New York or something, I can’t remember. Anyway, someone in the article, maybe a real estate broker or something, talked about how one of the things they did to try to make the neighborhood more marketable was to bring in all these sex shops, which this broker or whoever reasoned were good for the area’s image because they made it seem edgy. I realize that may not sound like it makes a ton of sense, but that’s only because I can remember so few of the details. It sounded totally reasonable in context.
Shortly afterwards, a friend from out of state came to visit me. And what was the number one thing on her agenda for her Bay Area vacation? A trip to Good Vibrations. Seriously. They don’t have classy sex shops where she was from. We ended up spending well over an hour there, and she easily dropped more than a thousand dollars.
And that’s when I decided we needed a Good Vibrations in Uptown. At that time, Uptown was full of potential, and not a whole lot else. Cafe Van Kleef was there, of course. The Fox Theater and Uptown Apartments were on the way, but there wasn’t much in the way of eating, and the shopping options were pretty much limited to the world’s worst Sears, a couple pawn shops and wig stores, and Bibliomania, which I of course love, but doesn’t exactly draw huge crowds to the neighborhood.
I reasoned that Good Vibrations would be the perfect store to stick on Telegraph because it’s the type of store people will travel to go shop at, and being so conveniently located near BART would make it an even bigger draw. Plus, their clientele probably has more disposable income than the people who go to the pawn shops, so I figured bringing those customers in would give a spillover boost to other businesses in the area, assuming any ever opened.
I babbled about it to anyone who would listen for about a week, and even made some effort to contact Good Vibrations to make the pitch, but since back then I didn’t know how to do anything, my efforts never got very far. Soon, I got bored with the idea and decided that what my neighborhood really needed to take off was to get Amoeba Music to move here.
Feelmore Adult Boutiuqe
So you can imagine my delight when I saw an item on this past Wednesday’s Planning Commission agenda about a Good Vibrations style sex shop opening up at 17th and Telegraph. Here’s a little description of the store from the staff report (PDF):
The applicant is modeling this activity after “Good Vibrations” in San Francisco and Berkeley, and other similar Adult retail stores. The business would sell adult sex toys, books, videos etc. from wall shelves, and provide room for small seminars on sexual health education. Larger educational and social groups coordinated by the business would meet at off-site locations in a convention format. The primary market is women aged 25 to 44, although other groups of adults would not be prevented for visiting. There is an adults-only entry policy. There are no massage, clothing-optional or direct sexual activities proposed. The business proposes to operate 7 days a week from 11 am to 11 pm, although midnight on weekends may be requested later.
It would be located on Telegraph, right past the intersection at 17th Street.
The store, called “Feelmore,” had to go to the Planning Commission for two reasons. One, sex shops (“Adult Entertainment Activity” in planning-speak) always require a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). Plus, they aren’t allowed within 1,000 feet of a residential zone or within 500 feet of a school. Since this store, at 17th and Telegraph, would be located less than 500 feet away from the Oakland School for the Arts and is also within 1,000 feet of the residential zone containing the Uptown Apartments, it also needed a variance.
I thought the whole issue was pretty interesting, and I kept sitting down all last weekend trying to write a blog post about it. But I kept having trouble with it. After all, you need conflict to tell a good story, and there just didn’t seem to be much of that here. After all, the City didn’t seem to think this is much of a problem. From the staff report (PDF):
In addition, the downtown area, especially nearby along Telegraph and Broadway above 14th Street, has seen a transformation within the last 10 years with an influx of bars, restaurants and residential units (catering primarily to young professionals). At least 2 bars within 6 blocks of the location cater primarily to a gay clientele. Given this transformation, it is not unreasonable to introduce a low-key retail establishment catering to adult items and sensuality. With the business model of the applicant, along with conditions of approval as accepted by the applicant, this Adult retail activity should not have adverse impacts at this location.
Additionally, the City received a number of letters of support (PDF) from acquaintances testifying to the owner’s character and work ethic. Not all of them are particularly persuasive (my favorite begins “I know that I may not be a California resident…”), but many specifically address how this store would benefit Oakland. Like, for example, helping stem our retail leakage:
As it stands if I require intimate adult products I go to San Francisco or Berkeley to make my purchases. I am thus supporting the economic growth of another city because my city does not provide this basic service.
But even though everyone seems to love the woman opening this store, and even though this particular shop is expected to be a classy operation, with flowers in the windows so on, I thought I might be able to make something of it, since issuing the CUP and variance for it is not without risk.
You see, Feelmore could close. It could be a failure and shut down, or it could be such a massive success that it needs to expand beyond its little 750 square feet and therefore perhaps move to a new location. And when that happens, since this particular location already has a CUP for adult entertainment, a seedier sex shop could potentially lease the space and move in. From the staff report (PDF):
However, a Conditional Use Permit and Variance runs with the land, not with any particular business. If “FeelMore” is successful and grows out of this space to relocate (or closes), this space could accept an Adult Entertainment Activity which meets the same conditions of approval. The applicant reports a 5 year lease, renewable to 5 more years. Under the First Amendment, the City could not censor content, only “time, place and manner” of business. Thus a store for a niche market of women customers could be replaced by the type of general Adult store familiar from other cities. Such stores have been reported to have blighting effects.
Youth Radio has performed due diligence investigating into the business philosophy and practices of Feelmore Inc. By all accounts the owner of Feelmore Inc. appears to be a positive, local, small-business owner who we would traditionally support. The concern in the permit issuance is rooted in the possibility of the retail space being vacated in the future and potentially sold to a less ethical business owner who would retain the adult entertainmnet permit. At around 750 square feet, the retail space could be outgrown quickly, especially with the expressed plans for the space being used for sex education workshops and the store being the only of its kind in Oakland.
Reading that, I was kind of sad to think that we’re so afraid of nuisance businesses in Oakland that we would feel the need to prevent good ones from opening.
But as much as I tried to sympathize with their fear of what could eventually happen, I still couldn’t agree with their position. After all, the approval of this store comes with a number of stringent conditions — they’re not allowed to have booths for private video viewing, they can’t frost or black out their window glass, they have to keep the adult items on display only in the back half of the store, they can’t put gross posters in their windows, and so on.
Since these conditions would apply to any adult entertainment business wanting to open up in the space, I just couldn’t see how anything bad could come from the approval. The staff report concurs:
Successor businesses using the CUP may not have the same self-regulation and benefits but would be subject to CUP conditions. Conditions of approval would precisely describe the business as presented by “FeelMore.” Conditions would help to prevent transition into a different kind of business with potentially more impacts.
So I kind of gave up on writing about it, since no matter how I tried, it just never seemed to go anywhere. I felt like I would be manufacturing controversy where none existed.
DAMN, WAS I WRONG.
So this came to the Planning Commission on Wednesday, and the hearing lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. You can watch a video of the whole thing below:
When all these people e-mailed me on Wednesday to say I just had to get the video of this hearing, I assumed that it was going to be all cute and funny, like that time at the San Francisco Planning Commission when they were talking about how to help industrial businesses and this guy started waving around a dildo as an example of quality goods manufactured in the City.
But it was not funny at all. In fact, I found it kind of upsetting.
A number of speakers showed up to oppose the store, mostly because of the negative impacts it would have on kids going to and from Youth Radio and First Place for Youth, two organizations that I think are great and do really wonderful work.
I’m not sure what exactly I expect them to say, but it sure as hell wasn’t what they did talk about, which was sexually exploited minors, child trafficking, and prostitution, and how the teenagers they work with need to be protected from such things, and how damaged these kids would be if they were exposed to this store and the element it attracts.
OMFG. I was floored. I mean, I guess, if I try really hard, I could imagine some reasonable objections that people working with youth could make to the idea of having their facilities near a sex shop. But to bring up the sexual abuse and trafficking of children as though this discussion has anything whatsoever to do with that? That’s outrageous. And just completely wrong. And really offensive.
So I was actually really happy when Commissioner Michael Colbruno just straight up scolded them.
Lately, I have been trying to be more sympathetic to people who oppose things. Like, even when they sound totally nuts, I’ve been really trying to think about what’s making them so crazy and what is it exactly that they’re afraid of. So normally I think I would find such stern comments kind of over the top. But in this case, I thought they were completely justified.
As far as I’m concerned, children whose exposure to sex has been exclusively negative (whether just through witnessing the horrifying amount of child prostitution that happens on Oakland’s streets or from more scarring personal experiences) can only benefit from exposure to an establishment that treats sex as a positive thing and a normal part of normal people’s lives that is consensual and enjoyable for all parties involved.
The puritanism on display was simply astonishing. Opposition to Feelmore wasn’t limited to the nearby youth service organizations. One woman who came to the meeting for an entirely different item felt compelled to get up and jump on the anti-pornography bandwagon.
And then, most surprising to me, the Downtown/Uptown Business District sent a representative to talk about how the store was inappropriate for downtown, because this supposed to be an art and entertainment district.
I don’t get it. Does the business district think sex is not entertaining? Maybe they’re doing it wrong, in which case they might benefit from some of the educational aspects of Feelmore’s business plan.
Look. You cannot keep kids away from sex, no matter how much you may want to. They don’t have to go looking for obscene video on the internet to be exposed to it — you cannot even walk into any store that sells magazines without seeing right there on the display racks shit like Maxim or whatever all chock full of photographs of barely covered women being portrayed as sex objects and nothing more.
And I don’t have anything against Maxim or whatever, but I do think it’s important, when we talk about what kind of impact a store like this will have on youth who walk by, to remember that kids are constantly bombarded with sexual imagery in all forms of media, and it’s also important to remember that very little of that imagery treats women as real people with real sexual needs of their own that merit attention and consideration. Stores like this one offer a healthy counterpoint to those portrayals.
I remember the first time I went to a classy sex shop. I was seventeen, and had just moved from Houston to Portland for college. The girls in my dorm all took a little trip together to this store called It’s My Pleasure. It was amazing! I had never even imagined that such a place could exist, where you could go and talk to the staff and ask all these questions I had and the women there would just be nice to you and answer you honestly and without judgement. Isn’t that better for young women than only being able to get answers about sex from boys who want something from them? We should celebrate businesses like this, not fear them.
After all, as Commission C. Blake Huntsman put it, “we’re all here because someone multiplied.”
The Commission ending up approving the CUP and variance for Feelmore unanimously.