Whether it’s choosing the farmers market over Walmart or the Haunted Bookshop over Amazon, Iowa City denizens have a fondness for supporting locally-owned small businesses. In one arena, however, the ability to shop locally is hindered by a complex combination of factors including zoning laws, differing approaches to “economic development” and conservative Midwestern morality. Unlike Chicago, Portland, New York City, Milwaukee and Madison, Iowa City lacks an independent, feminist, sex-positive sex store.
Currently the only game in town is Romantix, part of a 50-plus store chain. While Romantix’s website touts a welcoming atmosphere and knowledgeable staff, its location outside of downtown (near some railroad tracks for good measure) and the on-site viewing booths land it in the territory of “traditional” sex shop, historically uninviting spaces for a variety of people.
Where in Iowa City can individuals take sex education classes and connect with community members with similar interests and identities? If one wishes to purchase a vibrator, test different types of organic lubricants, join an erotica writing group and attend a workshop on BDSM, all at a single location, there are no local options. It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, Iowa City was once ahead of the curve.
Soon after its opening 2001, Ruby’s Pearl had its detractors. A writer for the community organization Looking for Better Ways called it a “tiny, risky business” with a “tacky window display [and a] limited selection of merchandise.” And the fledgling business was also in need of a loan. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) awards Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for projects that are a “benefit to low- and moderate-income (LMI) persons,” “aid in the prevention or eliminations of slums or blight” and “meet a need having a particular urgency.” Ruby’s Pearl co-owners Kimberly Koester and Laura Crossley asked the City of Iowa City for $50,000 — $40,000 as a grant, $10,000 as a loan — “to help pay three employees a ‘living wage’ of $9 an hour, as opposed to the $7 an hour they could now afford.” They ended up receiving $20,000 as a loan.
Working closely over its four-year tenure to co-sponsor programming with local non-profits like the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, Emma Goldman, and the Women’s Resource & Action Center, per the UI Libraries’ Iowa Women’s Archives, Ruby’s Pearl was “a hub for feminist and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) activism [that] held workshops on topics ranging from body image and tampon safety to hate crimes and safe sex education.” Given the specific demographics HUD tasks CDBG awardees with serving, it seems clear that Ruby’s Pearl, which the owners claim was “one of only seven feminist sex shops in the United States” when it closed in 2005, was serving populations HUD is charged with helping.
The goals of an independent, feminist sex store are a bit more complicated than just making money, and, in the end, money troubles caused by a relocation, an economic slowdown and the internet caused the business’ demise. Similar issues plagued Iowa City’s next iteration of the feminist sex store, the Toolbox, which made headlines in 2011 when the owners’ landlord revoked their lease before the business even opened. While the Toolbox didn’t last as long as Ruby’s Pearl, owner Julia Schaefer took a similar approach, viewing her store as a place for both commerce and education (full disclosure: I led a couple of workshops at the Toolbox in 2012).
After her business partner quit, Schaefer “found that time and money were an issue.” “I was trying to find part-time jobs that allowed me to be open… consistently,” she said, “If I couldn’t make it to my shop for reasons such as illness, this was difficult for my customers and I didn’t have the money to pay someone else.” I asked Schaefer if she had sought out any grants from the city; she replied that she “felt very intimidated by the idea of that.” Given its inherent emphasis on education and community development, a feminist sex store must necessarily straddle the boundary between for-profit and nonprofit enterprise, so these types of establishments need a little bit of extra help.
“I wanted to have time and energy to focus on my family, and I knew I would not have the ability to put 100 percent into my both my shop and my family,” Schaefer said. “My wife and I were trying to have a baby, and decided to move to her hometown.”
“At the time of our closing,” Schaefer continued, “the Toolbox was breaking even each month, but was not turning a profit yet, and I felt that if I had continued, I would have been able to turn a profit, but I felt that the rest of my life would have suffered for it. It was a tough call, and I don’t regret it, but I do miss my shop.”
Alea Adigweme is a writer, artist and educator. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 203.