Five Years of Better Sex in Berkeley

About a week before Christmas — the hottest time of the year for retailers — the staff of Good Vibrations’ Berkeley store stopped the bustle for a couple of minutes for a toast. Then they jumped back behind the register and out on the floor, asking overwhelmed holiday shoppers and first-time store visitors whether they needed any help. Our newly hired general manager, Beth Doyle, and several staff members from other locations trekked over to Berkeley to raise a glass with them.

The reason for their celebration? It wasn’t the holiday, strong sales, or an early Y2K party. Instead it was an event which, though smack in the middle of the holiday shopping season, had no real connection to it: our East Bay location celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Five years ago, over a year of planning, hiring, and location scouting done, we had planned to open a second store in the East Bay around the beginning of December, in time to serve holiday shoppers and make sure residents of Berkeley, Oakland, and the East Bay’s other municipalities would have a vibracious winter. Deciding to open the store was the easy part: we knew many people in the East Bay didn’t much like crossing the bridge to San Francisco to shop at our flagship store, which had celebrated its 15th year earlier in the decade. A zip code analysis spelled it out: go east, vibrator sellers! Many East Bay neighborhoods proved resistant to us before we found a nice retail space in a newly rehabbed building on San Pablo Avenue. Our friends at the Brick Hut, a women’s restaurant, were contemplating moving there, and wanted us to tag along. The landlords were a lot friendlier than others we’d contacted. In the summer of 1994 we hired a great store manager, Laura Rafferty, and she came to work at the San Francisco store to learn the ropes.

So far, the story isn’t any more gripping than that of any retail business faced with expansion decisions, although finding no room in several neighborhoods should have clued us in that we might face a little controversy. Sure enough, our early December opening was delayed by a few of our new neighbors — specifically, those who attended a nearby church — who contacted city government in an attempt to prevent Good Vibes from moving in.

This came as a bit of a shock — our San Francisco store, located in the lively, culturally mixed Mission District, had never logged a single complaint, in spite of the fact that for many more than five years we’d shared a block with a church, a police station, and a middle school! In deference to the shyest of our customers our windows have always been curtained or opaque, and we pride ourselves on being good neighbors.

The city of Berkeley has zoning regulations that restrict adult business’s locations, and our not-so-friendly new neighbors wanted to argue that this should prevent us from moving in. Many American municipalities have similar laws on the books — including New York City, whose recent “clean-up” of Times Square is notorious for banishing businesses that had been there for decades. In Berkeley’s case, the regulations specified that over half our content had to be non-adult in nature — whatever that means. It made for a challenging store set-up as we measured how many square feet were dedicated to books vs. videos, dildos vs. massage oils. However, we wanted to make sure the city knew we were willing to comply with the law.

What did the trick, though, was not only our insistence that we’d be good, upstanding Berkeley citizens. Local media got hold of the story, and because we’ve been a San Francisco institution for so long, played up our Berkeley neighbors’ “not in my back yard” sentiments, making them look a trifle hysterical. Our Berkeley customers wrote letters to the local papers and called city administrators to plead our case. Just a few weeks later the city decided in our favor — just in time for an opening date guaranteed to be overwhelmed (in fact, practically buried) by holiday business.

Many new staff have joined the Berkeley store since then, but Laura is still manager, and they’ve stayed the course and grown steadily during these last five years. Thanks in part to the ton of free publicity the NIMBY neighbors generated, we’re on the map in Berkeley and the entire East Bay. Lots of people who’d never been to our San Francisco store came in just to see what all the fuss was about and stayed to rent a video or shop for toys. And the neighbors, when they saw that none of their dire predictions about the neighborhood came true, slunk away — hopefully with a little more information about us and about sexuality to balance all their judgments and lurid imaginings.

For that matter, we’d be delighted to sell any of those folks a vibrator any time they decide they need one. No hard feelings, neighbors.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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