Joani Blank, the founder of the Good Vibrations sex store, which opened its doors in the late 1970s in the Mission District and later added stores in the Bay Area and on the East Coast, died on Saturday at the age of 79.
Her daughter, Amika Sergejev, wrote on Facebook that Blank had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June of this year and “chose to have a Celebration of Life rather than a funeral” late last month. After that celebration, Sergejev wrote, Blank “was able to say her goodbyes” to friends and family before facing “a rapid decline” in her condition.
“This fierce revolutionary woman has taught us all so much,” Sergejev wrote on Facebook. “She has done so many things in her full days here on earth and I know you all have stories.”
Blank started the first Good Vibrations at 22nd and Dolores in 1977 to offer an alternative to the seedy and male-dominated sex shops that were once the norm.
“Over and over, women would say they were afraid to go into one of those places,” said Carol Queen, the staff sexologist at Good Vibrations and an employee there for 26 years. “[Even] men would pop in and say, ‘Is it okay if I shop here?’ They would basically say, ‘I don’t like those places either.’”
Queen is the longest currently serving employee at the store chain, hired in 1990 after meeting Blank at a sexuality workshop in the Bay Area. Though not one of the earliest employees, Queen serves as the resident historian and said Blank started the chain after working with women who weren’t having orgasms.
“Joani was already very much involved in the sexual education world when the idea for Good Vibrations came to her,” she said.
Blank had been working at UCSF’s medical school with “women who were not orgasmic” and encouraged them to explore vibrators. She wanted to create a new shop with well-informed staff members willing to speak frankly about sex and pleasure.
“And it was always in the Mission District,” she said. “[The neighborhood] was at the time the heart of quote-unquote women’s places.”
“The Mission District and Valencia Street — that was it,” said Jackie Rednour-Bruckman, the vice-president of Good Vibrations. Rednour-Bruckman started at the store in 1993, a year after Blank sold the store to its workers. Blank then left Good Vibrations, and it became a worker-owned co-operative.
She remembers the small store at the corner of 22nd and Dolores streets being near the other women-centered and women-owned businesses on Valencia Street. Those included the Old Wives Tales bookstore, the Osento bathhouse, Artemis Cafe, Amelia’s Bar, and the Women’s Building.
All except the Women’s Building and Good Vibrations have since shuttered.
The store was “like a tool lending library” focused on providing vibrators, sex education materials, lube, and other toys, Rednour-Bruckman said.
There was an emphasis on high-quality products. Queen said she remembers staff members testing “every single vibrator” to ensure they were in working order. Faulty units were sent back to incredulous manufacturers.
“They would say, ‘No one else does this, what are you doing?’” Queen said. Blank would reply that she had regular customers who relied on her, and “if their vibrators don’t vibrate, how do you think that’s going to work?”
Blank went on to invent her own strap-on model vibrator, the butterfly vibrator, that emphasized clitoral stimulation that “predated many of the clitorally focused vibrators of today,” Queen said. She also founded a publishing house, Down There Press, with a focus on sexuality and even wrote a book about sex for kids.
She was a thinker, Queen said, with an outsized personality that turned some off but attracted a “core group” of Good Vibrations employees who have stayed in touch.
“She had thoughts flying around her head all the time,” she said. “She was comfortable talking about her personal feelings as well as more externalized things, and so she could be both really inspiring and really intense to be around. Her brain just didn’t stop.”
Good Vibrations emerged from Blank’s commitment to sexuality as social justice, Queen said. Blank “really believed that if people were uptight about sexuality, it would affect other parts of their life,” she said. She started running the store with a “democratic management” style before turning it into a co-op, holding large staff meeting where employees “could stand up to Joani and say they wanted [the store] to be different, and often she would answer to that.”
“She asked her staff members to set their own salaries,” Queen added. “For a batch of women who were in business for the first time, it was a challenging exercise, which is why I think she did it. She wanted people to value themselves.”
To that end, Blank helped others get their own sex shops started and pushed for female entrepreneurship by giving advice, sharing vendor lists, and providing funding, Rednour-Bruckman, the Good Vibrations vice-president, said.
“Her original vision was to have a store in every city,” she said, not a Good Vibrations per se, but a local outlet for sex education. Babeland in Seattle, Come As You Are in Toronto, and Feelmore in Oakland were started with her guidance or assistance, Rednour-Bruckman said, among other ventures Blank may have kept under wraps.
She did the same in the realm of social justice, sharing “books and resources” and getting “young people on that track” of activism, Rednour-Bruckman said. She stayed abreast of modern social movements like Black Lives Matter and women in prison, Rednour-Bruckman said, and got involved with the co-housing movement in the early 1990s.
She also stayed intermittently connected to the company after leaving, Rednour-Bruckman said.
“Every so on she’d pop into different stores and introduce herself,” she said. “She’d be in her late 70s and showing her latest tattoo [to the employees].”
The business went from a worker-owned co-op to a traditional company in 2006, and was sold to adult product distributor GVA-TWN in 2007 to stave off death from internet giants like Amazon, which could deliver sexual products to people’s doors without the overhead of brick-and-mortar locations.
A year later, it was sold to Joel Kaminsky, who was a top executive at GVA-TWN before leaving to focus full-time on Good Vibrations. It’s now solely owned by Kaminsky, with top long-time staff serving as top executives.
The chain operates eight stores, with seven in the Bay Area and one in Boston. The Mission District location at the corner of 17th and Valencia streets isn’t the original, but is closer to the “women’s row” of businesses that dominated the area in the 1970s. Its workers mourned Blank’s passing.
“Joani’s work has made possible all the sex education that I’m able to share,” said Jukie Schweit, the manager of the Valencia Street store. “I mourn the loss of this feminist pioneer and pleasure activist. What an incredible legacy and inspiration!”
Rednour-Bruckman, for her part, said Good Vibrations still differentiates itself from other sex stores by emphasizing the expert advice and “stellar service” to curious customers that Blank introduced.
“Her mission was to bring pleasure to people and to have a safe space for women to come and get vibrators,” Rednour-Bruckman said. “And [that mission] is still alive today.”