Local sex shop chain experiences massive growth

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Joe Wright/Staff

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In the four years I’ve been reporting for The Daily Californian, it wasn’t until I attended the post-renovation grand re-opening of the Berkeley location of Good Vibrations that I found the holy grail of party favors: a free vibrator given away with a smile to anyone who wished the sex shop a happy upcoming 36th anniversary.

Sitting discreetly on San Pablo Avenue, the Berkeley store is one of five Good Vibes clustered in the Bay Area, while a sixth store sits across the country in Massachusetts, hinting at further expansion on the East Coast. Now that the company is in what Executive Vice President Jackie Strano called a healthy fiscal state — with a bustling online shop, mobile site, private product line and erotic movie production company. It seems poised to expand on its goal of bringing pleasure to the people.

Sex counselor Joani Blank first opened the original 200 square-foot Good Vibes store in San Francisco in 1977, deciding to set up shop while working to teach nonorgasmic women, whom Blank purposefully refers to as pre-orgasmic women, to masturbate.

“I would encourage them to be comfortable first with their hands and then with vibrators, but then it became a question of where do you get one?” Blank said. “If they were jumping into this world, there should be a place that is comfortable for women.”

Small at first, but with the intention of being warm, welcoming and woman-friendly, Good Vibes gathered a loyal customer base and crew of employees quickly. In 1992, in line with what she called her own “antibusiness perspective,” Blank converted the business into a worker-owned co-op.

“It seemed wrong to me that anyone would be making a lot of money off of this,” she said.

For a while, it was smooth sailing. The Berkeley store, the first location outside of San Francisco, opened in 1995. Revenue had increased by 30 percent every year since the business became a co-op, according to a San Francisco Chronicle written at the time.

But financial troubles in the early 2000s forced the company to revert back to a single ownership. By then, the online sex-toy market had done its work on the brick-and-mortar shop that relied so heavily on customer loyalty and interaction.

Still, growth was in the company’s future. With Blank’s emphasis on supporting all sex styles, ages and genders as well as the stores’ commitment to being clean, well-lit and hospitable, customers did not stay away. Under new leadership and with Good Vibrations back on solid ground, an Oakland store was opened in early 2012.

Not forgetting that the whole operation was started by a sex educator, education clearly remains a priority for the shop: Tours are often given to UC Berkeley students and classes, open workshops are held (some are free and some for a fee), and the company’s website hosts tons of free information and encouragement.

“Sure, you can buy a vibe on Amazon, but there’s not going to be anyone to show you how to use it,” said Berkeley store manager Laura Rafferty, who has worked at the location for 18 years. “It’s about that interaction. A lot of people just come in with questions. A lot of customers have been shopping here since we first opened. We’re a resource (for the community).”