It's dark as the movie begins. You sit in your seat and take in the bright light of the screen, the vivid sounds, the action that unfolds before you. And when you're ready, you pull down your pants and stroke yourself.
This is how movie watching goes at Mini Book Shoppe on Gratiot north of Seven Mile on the city's east side. Although its quaint name suggests otherwise, you will not find the novels of William Faulkner or the gentle verse of Robert Frost on the shelves here.
Instead you can buy the latest issue of Buttman Magazine. Or the Fat Boy, a dildo as thick as a wrist. Or a blowup doll modeled after a porn star that, when inflated, looks nothing like a porn star. And you can watch porno movies in darkened little cubicles all by yourself.
Mini Book Shoppe is an old-time sex shop and peep show. Its deceptive name vanished from the building's outdoor signage a remodeling or two ago, partly to dissuade the occasional stray innocent who'd wander in looking for comic books or a mystery novel. The sign out front now says only, "Adult Videos. Peep Shows. Magazines. Novelties." Because that says it all.
A peep show might seem obsolete in an age of free porn clips saturating the Internet and adult movies that can be ordered through cable, but this place still serves a purpose, says David Julian, the store's 46-year-old owner.
"Guys that come in here from the suburbs, maybe he's got a family at home and he wants to watch a movie, but he can't do it at home with his wife and kids there, so he'll come here, blow five or 10 bucks, and split," he says.
Meanwhile, the customers drawn from the impoverished blocks surrounding the shop have their own reasons to visit. "A lot of them around here don't have Internet access, they don't know how to get online and use a computer," he says. "So they still come in and watch their movies."
There are 15 cramped booths in the back, each featuring a rubber mat on the floor mopped daily by some poor soul, a video screen on the wall and a chair bolted into place. Close the door and a little red sign announcing "Occupied" lights up. There are 80 movies to choose from, each on its own channel, with new movie offerings every week. The DVD covers for each are shown in a lit display case on a wall outside the booths, with a channel number indicated underneath each. Feed a dollar into the slot and you get a few X-rated minutes. Most guys are done after about $5, Julian says.
He prides himself on his shop's cleanliness, its friendly customer service, its lack of bulletproof glass around the front counter, where customers can find the store's owner on the job every day. To him it's just another mom-and-pop shop, despite some people's initially uncomfortable reaction when they learn what he does for a living.
"You tell people what you do, they kind of get a little like that," he says. "But to me it's just a family business, no different than owning a party store or dry cleaner or car wash. That's the way I always looked at it."
Mini Book Shoppe is one of the few peep shows still operating in the city. Zoning laws passed in the early '70s grandfathered in existing shops but prohibited new ones from ever opening, making them a dying breed. Few neighborhoods, it seems, wanted places nearby that draw men to masturbate, and the city cracked down.
"The theaters were even worse, though" Julian says. "Them days of the theaters like the Guild and all them theaters, they were way worse than the bookstores ever were. They were swinging right there in the fucking aisles. A guy would bring his wife or girlfriend there, and six guys would be around them, waiting to do her right in the middle of the fucking theater."
Julian's dad Frank started Mini Book Shoppe back in 1971, within one of the busiest shopping districts in the city, where this little porn shop coexisted with Cunningham, Kresge, Sanders and other local retailers that are now just fond memories for older people. A brother-in-law had opened his own peep show, and Frank saw what a jackpot that had become. He followed suit.
Back then, the stock was centerfold magazines and 8 mm skin flicks, both in the booths and on the shelves. "They would sell them and make $40, $50; the ones with the reel — you had to put it on a projector. Some of them didn't have no sound. Some of them were black and white — color didn't come out yet, and they were getting 40, 50 bucks."
By the late '70s, though, stores like his were suffering as cities scared away customers as they sought to clean up sex-oriented businesses within their borders. But home video, and later DVDs, revolutionized the industry, and pornography lost much of its stigma. Business boomed again.
"You know, years ago porn used to be, like, taboo and hidden," says Julian, who started here when he was 23. He gets visits nowadays not only from lone men but also women stocking up for bachelorette parties. "Now it's so mainstream — it's in the movies, it's right on your TV box coming through your cable, it's everywhere, man. I mean, look at MTV, look at the videos that they put out with all that rump shaking they got going on. It wasn't like that back in the '70s and '80s. It really became mainstream when the Internet came out. The stereotype of the guy with the raincoat, them days are over."
The customers come one after the other. A tall, tan man walks in wearing a pink Polo short and khaki shorts. "Hey, how you doing, Mike?" Julian says. The man says a friendly hello back and dashes to a booth. "He's a regular," Julian says, laughing. "Every day he's here. He doesn't miss a day. Every day he spends five bucks. Every fucking day. But that's OK."
Another regular emerges from the back after a brief time in a booth. "I'll be back to buy those movies we talked about," the gray-whiskered man tells Julian before leaving.
A middle-aged guy, a longtime customer, walks in to return his herbal erection pills. Defective, he insists. Julian obliges with an exchange, even though he takes the loss. It's all about keeping his loyal customers happy.
"A lot of the guys who come in here are regulars," he says. "When I started here I knew a guy who had brown hair; now it's white. You know what I'm saying? You develop friendships over the years. They're not just customers; you know them by name, you talk to them, you get to know where they work. I know if they have kids and if they have cottages up north. They'll even say, "You won't see me for the week. I'm going to my cottage up north.'"
Some people might think a place like this too seedy to consider it a mom-and-pop, but Julian and his siblings essentially grew up here. His dad passed it down; first to his brother, now to him. It's bought him a modest home. It's putting his kids through college. It feeds his family.
But for how long? The features shown in the booths are increasingly available for free online, and it's hard to compete with free. Like all mom-and-pop owners in the city do at some point, he wonders how long he can last.
"Yeah, sure, it runs through your head," Julian says. He's thought about switching careers, something people don't wince at, but he'd be trading a still-steady business for something unknown. "I mean, I have a few ideas but, you know, my equipment's paid for, my building's paid for, and you're caught in that perfect storm — do I get out? And then if business keeps going down, who's going to buy it? The good days are behind me, and I know that here with this business. Sometimes you sit and think, jeez, what else can I do?"
A woman's high-def moan jolts the room from the peep show in back. A few minutes later, a man emerges and heads back out into the bright sunshine. Another satisfied customer, another booth to mop, another few bucks coming into the old family store.
Detroitblogger John is John Carlisle. He scours the Motor City for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.