Normally, visits to stores by reporters prompt a friendly "nickel tour" and a bit of bright banter. Not so with adult stores in Detroit. Upon establishing my credentials at my first stop, I asked pleasantly, "Do you mind if I look around?"
The man behind the Plexiglas looked at me with a sad smile. "Actually, I do," he replied.
Magazine writers are supposed to be stubborn people, so I pressed the point. It went badly. The encounter ended with him cursing at me, picking up a huge purple MagLite and forcing me out the door. Outside, trucks rumbled along Schaefer Road in a gray, industrial part of Detroit. A sharp wind forced me to retreat to my car. I realized my credentials were essentially worthless, so I made the rounds quietly, buzzing around the belt of Detroit porn stores that stud boundary roads like Schaefer, Wyoming and Eight Mile. In these unprepossessing spots you'll find the trench-coaters: quiet, mostly male customers browsing racks of DVDs, dropping quarters into peep show booths, and leaving with little brown bags.
And some of the places are, at least in my opinion, a lot of fun. For instance, take Intimate Ideas Adult Novelties. It's the kind of place that makes boys look forward to turning 18. An unassuming building on the Detroit-Dearborn border at Warren and Greenfield roads, it offers a friendly shopping experience with wide browsing rights. In the old-fashioned lingo of bookstores, though, it isn't a library: Unlike a Barnes & Noble, there's a 15-minute browsing limit for the magazines, and some of the more expensive ones are even wrapped shut. The DVDs are stacked thick on the racks, and buyers can examine them minutely.
But it isn't all come-splattered babes and throat-gagging: A variety of "games" for adults fill up part of the store. Many are sexual twists on Twister, erotic versions of "truth or dare" or dice for rolling out random positions in the Kama Sutra. While playful, the multitude of games is difficult to take seriously. Do we Americans really need to roll the dice or draw a card to give a loving rim job? Are we that repressed? Or are these just gag gifts for bachelor parties?
Not only is the store's "novelty" section noticeably large, but the signage has been replaced in the last few years to play up the concept. It's a canny move, a way to invite people into a part of the store that's cheeky, not hardcore, where naughty cartoon cards and wind-up walking penises set a lighthearted tone. The novelty half of the store has "lingerie" for the hefty gal, edible underwear, e-stim equipment, penis pumps, butt plugs, and oils and lubes. A lot of the wares look like fun, but you wonder what kind of man shells out $65 for the Total Erection System, an intimidating set of plastic tubes and pumps that looks like it could land you in the hospital.
But not all stores are the same. Adult News and the Book Shack takes up much of a city block on the corner of Eight Mile Road and Tracey Street. It stocks DVDs and "adult novelties," such as blow-up dolls notably "Heather Hart, personal secretary," which, according to the box, sports a realistic "vibrating mouth and tongue." But unlike Adult Novelty on Warren, this emporium doesn't invite browsing. A peek at the magazines will cost you a 75-cent browsing charge, and the DVDs are all locked behind Plexiglas, leaving you guessing what's on the discs.
But what the complex does have is dozens of classic peep booths. In Adult News alone there are more than a dozen, half of them in use during my visit, with lights showing them occupied, and boots and shoes visible below the doors.
Once you're in a booth, the illusion of privacy is unconvincing. The door closes with a latch, but you're always aware somebody is just feet away. The slot in the wall accepts quarters, automatically shutting down the lights as videos begin to play. Suddenly, your booth is filled with moaning, sighing and cooing, as naked flesh fills the screen for 30 seconds. Pressing a button on the wall changes the scene. The selection of channels is pretty inclusive, with straight sex, bondage, fetish, gay and lesbian scenes. Flipping through the channels can jar the passions with each click: "Hot. ... Hot! ... Totally hot! ... "Buzzkill!"
The noises of the video mix and mingle with muffled moaning coming from other booths. "You want me to eat your come?" a breathlessly recorded female voice asks somewhere. At least one baffled moan erupts from a live mouth behind one of the partitions. I remember quickly a friend who worked in a peep show, who told me how at night he'd clean the booths with tongs. It's a little skeevy.
More austere still, at one of the satellite Uptown Books outlets on Eight Mile Road, the shopping experience is spare to a fault, with none of the cheeky frills available elsewhere. Racks of titles seem scarcely categorized, but the selection in this store is wide, with a large gay section, a small "classic" section with Behind the Green Door and Annie Sprinkle videos, and ample fetish choices. I was unaware that some people got off on watching women crush ground hamburger with their feet, but there it is.
A shrinking business
You might not know it, but these businesses are looking change in the face. Mom-and-pop stores have closed from corporate competition over the years, especially the local record shops that flourished before the rise of cheap downloads. But small adult shops shared a kind of moral immunity, since the Wal-Marts of the world refused to compete with them. But now, the adult video store is likely to go the way of the local record shop. It's ironic: Though prigs and Puritans have long struggled to shut down local "smut peddlers," the booming online adult industry, ironically, may deliver the final blow.
In fact, for many consumers, porn shops are so 1990s. According to the annual survey of the U.S. adult entertainment industry by Adult Video News, adult video rental and sales volume peaked in 2005 at $4.28 billion and 957 million rentals.
This past year saw a 15.4 percent drop in video sales and rentals. Even though traditional sales operations, including mail order and retail, account for more than a quarter of the total adult entertainment market, downloads grew 13.6 percent in 2006; at 22 percent of the total market, online business is on a track to eclipse retail, mail order and online orders combined.
It all makes sense to AVN President Paul Fishbein, who says, "When you think about it, consumers on the whole aren't sitting down to watch a full movie. The ability to purchase just a favorite scene has created a more user-friendly environment."
Sex-industry writer Acme Andersson, former editor of Celebrity Skin and a freelancer for High Society, Cherry and Club International, tells Metro Times, "In the old days, that was part of growing up: going into a store. But kids today don't buy porn DVDs. It doesn't cross their minds. They download everything; buying things is not even in their vocabulary."
From his home in Venice, Calif., Andersson sees a trend toward a friendlier, more inclusive sales environment, exemplified by progressive stores like Babes in Toyland and Good Vibrations.
"In these places," Andersson says, "you're not walking into a store that's bombarding you with pictures of open assholes. With the toys, you're easing people into it. It's not as intimidating as seeing 5,000 little tiny hardcore pictures staring back at you." Even though the market for "adult novelties" grew 15 percent in 2006, this kind of expanded consumer interest isn't necessarily a good fit for all adult stores. Andersson asks, "Is some 18-year-old girl going to go to the store and buy her first vibrator around a bunch of raincoaters? No way."
The writing is on the wall. AVN's January report goes so far as to say, "The brick-and-mortar video store has truly suffered this year and unless they are able to adapt and change, they run the risk of being forced out of the market entirely."
How will it all shake out? Andersson says, "I imagine you'll wind up with some friendly boutiques, almost family-friendly. The old-fashioned stores always presented themselves as some sort of red-light thing, and they haven't been able to change. It took new people moving in, like Toys in Babeland, where you go in and it's a friendly thing. And you don't walk out of there thinking, 'God, I can't believe I was in there,' going home to take a shower."Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org