Love in All the Thong Places

Inside a porno shop on Valentine's Day. It ain't as though it's Mother's Day.

Monday was just another day at Hollywood Adult Superstore. While the outside world consumed itself with Valentine’s Day activities, fretting over the rituals of companionship or the meaning of loneliness, five guys thumbing through girlie mags inside a Telegraph Avenue porn shop seemed not to care.

One dude in a denim jacket groped his way through an issue of Buttman for ten minutes. When he finished, he carefully put it back in its place and picked up another copy of Buttman, this one from the previous month. Meanwhile, a young guy in a beanie cap, perhaps a Cal student, approached the front counter, bought six dollars’ worth of coupons, and headed toward the closet-sized video booths in back. Once there, he’d close the door behind him, slide the coupons into a slot next to a video screen, and watch the TV set come alive. He’d press a button to channel-surf his way through about fifteen different porn videos — gay, lesbian, straight, etc. — until he settled on something he liked. He’d bought about twenty minutes’ worth of screen time.

Clerk Jim Smith — not his real name, per the policy of his corporate masters — has worked in porn shops for seven years and at Hollywood Adult Superstore the past three. Here, his regular customers are mainly working-class Joes, although he gets the occasional suburban dad who takes advantage of the shop’s proximity to the freeway. “They can drop off their movies on the way home to Danville,” he said while he filed just-returned DVDs. “Or they can stop by in the morning on their way to work.”

Monday mornings are generally slow-going. But after brisk weekend sales in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, Jim was busier than usual. A fellow clerk had called in sick, and that left a lot of DVD racks to fill, eight video booths to run smoothly, and a magazine rack to keep an eye on.

“Generally speaking,” he said as he eyed the denim-clad dude at the rack, “the customers in here right now are the same ones who were in here yesterday, and were in here Friday, and they’re the ones who are going to be here tomorrow.”

In the porn-shop biz, three other events yield big money: Christmas, bachelorette parties, and retirement celebrations. Yet it’s February 14 that motivates straight men in relationships to take a stroll down the sex-toy aisle. “Guys who come in want to know what their wife will like,” Jim said, stacking empty DVD cases behind the counter. “Which I, personally, always found to be a strange question.” He took a break from his work and looked up. “It’s like, how do I know what their wife likes? I don’t even know her.”

Essentially, Jim has learned, what men really mean to communicate when they ask that question is, “Which vibrator will my wife like?” The straight male is now on an endearing quest for what Jim calls “The Perfect Vibrator.”

“The Perfect Vibrator is the one she’s going to use,” Jim said. “If she’s never had one before, I tell them to start small and work your way up.”

Sales on sex toys had gone up over the Valentine weekend, Jim said, even though he was unable to provide details. But weekend DVD sales rose from the usual 150 to 200. Jim glanced at some paperwork, but he didn’t need figures to tell him which stars were the most popular sellers for straight couples: “Jenna Jameson and Tera Patrick,” he said. “Guys and girls like ’em.”

Other, noncalendar-related events can spike porn sales, Jim said. If a young starlet gets a namedrop on Howard Stern’s radio show, customers are calling the shop by high noon.

On cue, a customer asked Jim if he had a copy of Extreme Porno Boot Camp. The making of the porn film had appeared on a rerun of the PBS show Frontline. The movie stood out in the documentary for its script, which included violent role-play and controversial “simulated rape” scenes. In the documentary, the Frontline cameramen were so unnerved by what they were filming, they walked off the set. Of course, this kind of publicity only filtered back to Jim’s cash box.

“Whenever a star’s name or a movie title crosses into the mainstream,” Jim said, “we can tell.”

The shop is also trying to pick up some of that mainstream play. The clerk says the shop’s corporate owners are shifting the outlet’s aesthetic to a “couples-friendly” environment. Six months ago, the bulky and outdated VHS tapes were phased out, making way for sleek DVD racks. New overhead lighting brightened the place up, and the his-and-her sex-toy section increased its spread. A new paint job out front also added a lick of legitimacy.

Still, the perfume of disinfectant spray lingers inside. The regulars who come every day provide a steady stream of business, no matter what the holiday, no matter what the calendar reads. That kind of loyal clientele keeps the shop running the rest of the year.

“As far as good, local neighborhood working-class porn shops go, this is it,” Jim said. “There’s almost always a reason to be open.”

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