Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sex and the Economic Downturn

This will be one of the oddest items I post, and I shall endeavor to do so tastefully. Let me begin with an article that caught my eyes in Sunday’s New York Times. Several new hotels in Manhattan were being reviewed, and in one up-market, high tech hotel the reviewer was surprised to find that the mini-bar featured a “sensuality kit” that included condoms, lubricant, a small vibrator, and two strips of silk with pictures of handcuffs printed on them (presumably the hotel’s lawyers vetoed actual handcuffs). Price for the kit: $195.00. Recession? What recession? One can only hope that the purchaser leaves the vibrator out at room temperature for a bit before employing it.

This could easily lead to an essay on people’s behaviors in motels and hotels, but we will leave that for another day. I ran out to the All-Tel office this afternoon to renew our contract and pick up a new phone (my clunker again failed to alert me to an incoming call while set on “vibrate” during Rotary). As long as I was out there, I stopped next door to say hello to Evelyn, co-owner (with her daughter) of D’Von’s Lingerie, who I had not seen in nearly two years.

Evelyn first started D’Von’s in a cavernous space in the old Valley Fair Mall nearly ten years ago. Susan and I wandered in one day after getting flu shots and liked her so much that we worked hard at finding things to purchase from her: candles, as I recall, and a nightgown for Susan’s mother (we would not find anything for her mother in Evelyn’s current product mix, I suspect). I bonded with Evelyn around our mutual love for classic pin-up art, and would stop in from time to time. Three years ago or so I conducted the wedding of her daughter, Denise, one of the most grounded, solid young women I have ever met, and a wonderful mom to her kids (even if she sells “insertable pig tails” and other such gear). Both mother and daughter, in other words, are great people laboring in an interesting corner of the retail world.

So I asked Evelyn what was new and how the shop was doing. Her husband worked at the New Page mill, so is out of work, and business has been miserable. Halloween is normally a big season for shops like hers (I have speculated on where one would wear the kind of costumes she sells in public; parties we never get invited to, I suppose), but this year “the season hasn’t even started yet.” I asked her about her core customer base, the exotic dancers who work in local clubs (they get a discount). The dancers, she told me, have been complaining about poor business and lousy tips for the past six months. “They’re only buying shoes and panties, the things that get worn out,” Evelyn lamented. I decided not to ask a follow-up question on that one.

I told her I had thought that the sex business – and that is, in the end, what she and Denise are in – would be pretty much recession-proof. She paused for a moment. “What keeps us going are the toys,” she finally said. “Four years ago I refused to carry them, and now they are 75% of our business. They have become completely mainstream, and if you can’t afford a night out you can at least buy a couple of toys to make it fun to stay home.”

I told her about the hotel’s “sensuality kit” and she howled. “A hundred and ninety five dollars?” I could put together a much better kit for twenty bucks!” I’m sure she could, with or without the pig tail.