Good Vibrations on Valencia Street

By AYAKO MIE

After Bridgett met her partner late last month,  one of their first outings was to drive up from San Jose to visit an old Mission District establishment: Good Vibrations, an adult toy store at 603 Valencia Street. No matter the recession, the couple spent $172 on a silicon dildo and other adult goods. “I don’t mind spending money for my pleasure,” said Bridgett, who asked that her full name be withheld.

Bridgett isn’t the only consumer willing to spend on sex toys. Despite December’s retail gloom and doom, consumers continue to spend money for the intimate goods that promise to spice up their sex lives, according to sex toy retailers

Jonathan Plotzker, senior director of merchandising and e-commerce at Good Vibrations, said a poor economy actually plays in the store’s favor.

Good Vibrations on Valencia Street

There are more people taking ‘stay-cations,’ not leaving town but enjoying time off at home,” Plotzker said. “That means they have more time at home to fill with entertainment.”

Customers agreed. “We’re not going anywhere. Instead we’re going to have fun with this dildo all night long,” said Carmen, who’s lived in the Mission District with her female partner for more than five years.

Although Plotzker declined to reveal sales figures, he said business is stable. “In general we’re doing ok. Business is doing much better than others in retail,” he said. Indeed the sex products business has grown into a billion-dollar industry as the Internet has given buyers the privacy to buy products online, according to a recent article in Forbes.

Angelique Stacy, store manager at Good Vibrations on Valencia Street, said that even her retail store had been doing better than she expected. “After Christmas, especially this Monday was a very good day. It was as busy as a weekend. I think this year seems to be a little bit better at least for this store.”

Good Vibrations opened its first store in the Mission District in 1977 to serve Mission’s diverse community. It gained strong support from female customers by offering women-focused products and sex-positive education, and added a second store in San Francisco on Polk Street, one in Berkeley on San Pablo Avenue and one in Brookline, Mass. The stores are distinguished by fronts covered with glazed glass, but once customers walk inside, lubricants, vibrators and dildos are displayed as openly as iPods, laptops and iPhones at an Apple Store.

The national debut of their signature product, the Rabbit Pearl vibrator, in an episode of Sex and the City fueled popularity of their adult toy business. However the Internet brought new competition. Prices fell and Good Vibrations struggled, finally selling out to GVA-TWN, a Cleveland-based adult toy wholesaler, in October 2007. Plotzker said the company has regained most of its position by enhancing its search engine and expanding its online assortment.

This season, students and tourists are Good Vibrations’ biggest buyers, Stacy said.

The store offers a 15 percent student discount. “I bought a $78 vibrator as a little Christmas present for me,” said Katelin, a student at UC Berkeley. “It’s more expensive than the products at other stores, but the quality is good, and I get a student discount.”

Stacy said that with the euro strong she continues to see a lot of Europeans. “I’ve read about this store in the guidebook, and wanted to come here to check it out,” said Kai Jung, a German tourist who purchased a $59 dildo. “I’m going to have fun with my partner.”

Even the unemployed were buying. “I was laid off just before Christmas but I should still have fun,” said Tyler Williams, who purchased a $150 vibrator and sex videos for his girlfriend to celebrate their first anniversary. “It’s a depressing time,” he said. “But it’s a much healthier solution to relieve the stress than turning to alcohol or drugs.”

Stacy said one of the store’s draws is its easy and friendly atmosphere. The clerks treat a vibrator as seriously as an Apple genius treats an iPod. “We call our sales representatives SESAs, Sex Educator Sales Associates,” said Stacy. “SESAs have at least 40 hours of sex education before they serve customers, and are ready to answer any questions.”

In fact, 60 percent of Good Vibrations’ profits come from retail store sales. Plotzker said face-to-face sales offer something online purchasing cannot. “We must compete by giving additional value in the form of customer service, information and educational materials. This is harder to do online,” said Plotzker, who added that they plan to open another retail store in the Bay Area.

Bridgette said the associates make buying toys easy. “It’s like a book store,” she said. “The sales representatives are friendly, and I don’t feel pressured to buy anything. Most importantly I get to know my partner better with their products.”

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  1. Great article. I see I’m a little late as far as comments go, but better late than never, right? I can definitely see how sex shops will do well in a recession. There’s one thing for certain in this life and that’s the fact that humans will have sex for pleasure come hell or high water. So it’s pretty safe to say that adult stores will be around for a long time to come. Two thumbs up on this story.

  2. Long ago, when feminists roamed Valencia Street and Noe Valley in large packs, 😉 Joani Blank opened a little vibrator store. Even she doesn’t remember the exact address — but the first store was on 22nd Street near Guerrero, and after that, when she and her business outgrew that extremely small space, she moved west on 22nd, closer to Dolores Street. That was the first store I remember visiting, right after I moved to the Bay Area (or, more realistically, probably before, on one of my San Francisco pilgrimages in the early ’80s). It’s definitely the first place I went to one of GV’s old Erotic Reading Circles (which are still held at the Center for Sex & Culture to this day, with great thanks to Good Vibes for starting them up).
    [http://www.sexandculture.org]

    Then the move to Valencia Street came — just a week before the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which made all the vibrators fall from their shelves. That, at least, is the tale told to me when I began working at Good Vibrations in 1990, after meeting Joani at a Betty Dodson workshop.

    Historically yours,
    Dr. Carol Queen
    Good Vibrations Staff Sexologist

  3. Mark,

    Thank you for your comment. I have been checking about the original location with several people at Good Vibrations. But so far, nobody knows for sure. I will keep checking, and update with the correct address, when I find out.

    Ayako Mie

  4. good piece. it would be interesting to know if the more downscale, traditional, sex shops, like on mission in the 2000 block, are having the same experience. one fact should be checked. i believe the original good vibrations was on 22nd at dolores, not valencia.