The Smitten Kitten opened in Minneapolis, MN in 2003. From the very beginning they have been a sex toy store committed to providing sex education along with their products. The store's mission to provide safe sex toys inspired their non-profit organization, CATT (Coalition Against Toxic Toys). CATT promotes awareness of the potential health risks of some sex toy materials. After many years of making Minneapolis a smarter and sexier city, the Smitten Kitten is expanding and opening a store in Denver, CO. Alison Nowak, General Manager of the Smitten Kitten, and I sat down and had a chat about the new Denver store, its' grand opening, and the future of sex toy stores in general.
Laura-So, how did you pick Denver to open the store? What makes Denver a sexy city?
Alison-Well, we looked at a bunch of different cities because there are a lot of places that could potentially be great for Smitten Kitten. The owner knows Denver better than other cities. She grew up there and has a sense of what the community is like. Also, it is similar to Minneapolis in demographics.
L-Are there any other sex toy stores in the area that are like you guys?
A-Not like us. We did some pretty extensive surveying of the other stores. It seems like the majority of them are very video booth focused and have very few toys. They have extremely limited safe toys; maybe a little hard plastic and that is about it.
L-What has the process been like? Are there any city specific issues you have faced like zoning laws? I know that in Minneapolis, you guys aren't considered an "adult business" so you don't have to card at the door.
A-Well, luckily it is very similar in Denver. We're not going to have to card at the door. We're not going to have to black out the windows so we can have the same open, mellow atmosphere. Because I think that part of the beauty of the Smitten Kitten is that you can go shopping there like you would for shoes or kitchen wear and not have it be a weird secretive thing. It is just a normal part of your day.
L-How's the atmosphere of the new store going to be? Will it be similar to the Minneapolis store?
A-It will be. The new store's color scheme and furniture is a little more gender neutral. For some reason, people love making everything sex toy related in pink and purple, so we'll see if that gender neutrality holds when the inventory is in the store. But, we're trying!
L-Will the Denver store offer classes and workshops?
A-Yes, but we are still working out the logistics. The Denver store is much smaller in square footage than the Minneapolis store so we need to assess how best to accommodate large groups of people. We will do little classes to start out like our basic Sex Toys 101 and things like that. We will do all of our standard in house classes in Denver.
L-Will you continue with your standard of having sex educators staff the store.
A-That's one of our core values. You can buy safer sex toys other places; they are in there amongst everything else. But a lot of other places don't offer the sex education we do and don't have sex education training for their employees. Smitten Kitten works really hard on that and cares about that a lot.
L-Will there be a grand opening with guests?
A-Yes in fact there will! We are lucky enough to have Tristan Taormino and Adrianna Nicole coming to open the store. Tristan is responsible for an amazing line of videos, the Vivid Sex Ed videos. We are huge fans of Tristan and what she does. Tristan and Adrianna will do meet-and-greet and I know it will be really fun. The grand opening is on April 24th. We're going to do it around Earth Day. So we'll have give-aways and eco sexy deals.
L-What do you think the state of sex toy stores is today? How has it changed in the past few years?
A-From being at AVN this year it is clear that the industry is continuing to court women and the more sophisticated shopper. People looking for something in a more sex positive, shame free context. I feel like men's toys lag behind women's so significantly and I've been trying to figure out what that's about. I think there is a pervasive "men-are-pigs" mentality. And maybe some men don't care, but I know that many men do. I think that when you are not given a viable alternative, then you will choose the crappy option. But when you are given options, and not just one silicone masturbation sleeve on the market, they probably will go with the higher quality toy. Because you could reuse it. There are a lot of cost reasons to buy higher quality. I think the industry is really split. There's the new paradigm which we [TSK] push. Very sex positive, sex education focused, trying to provide a nice shopping experience. And then there is still the gross and dirty. Not the fun dirty, but the "I'm a little creeped out" dirty.
L-You bring up a really interesting point about men and sex toy shops. When I worked at the Smitten Kitten I noticed so many men that would come in and say, "Oh, I am in a women's store," even though the store is for people of all genders. I think it is less about the store and more about what men think their place in society and sexuality is. How do you let men know that the Smitten Kitten is for them and they have a right to be choosy about their sexual experience too?
A-There are so many facets to this. One of the issues is that Smitten Kitten has for a long time billed itself as feminist and a lot of men feel that they are completely outside of that. Really all we are going for is that we want to create an experience that is positive for women. That experience is often very positive for men too and allows them to have a freedom of expression that they might not have been allowed in the past. We are not separatists! That is what is so funny. People have crazy ideas about feminism and everyone has a different definition. But back to your original question...
L-How do you make the store for men too?
A-I've been obsessed with this question for over a year. I've been trying to market to men. I've definitely had guys say the store needs to be dirtier, and that is just not something we are willing to do.
L-What do you think they mean by dirtier?
A-I think maybe darker because we tend to have a lot of natural light. Maybe there is something to that. Maybe some guys really do enjoy that "this is my dirty secret" type of environment. And there is nothing wrong with that. But there are lots of places to get that. I think for men and women, just breaking through all of the layers of messages they've gotten from birth on about what sex is supposed to be is difficult. I spend a lot of time thinking about this and I don't know how free I am from the messages I am getting. I mean, I do a lot of media analysis and try to be sure I am making up my own mind. But there is no escaping society. We're all in it, one way or another, whether we are reacting to it or just floating along in it.
L-I think that's why stores like the Smitten Kitten are so important because you are in the process of changing society. Changing society's concept of what sexuality can be. That is another reason I am so happy you are opening up another store.
A-And that is huge for us. We want to give space for everyone to be who they are-to be very open and free individuals. One of the things that is so cool about the store is that we always try to maintain a really light happy positive environment and that makes it a really fun place to work. We get to encourage other people to have fun and explore things. It doesn't get much better than that.
L-There has been a movement, starting with Good Vibrations and Babeland to have sex toy stores that are sex positive, educator staffed, and maybe pansexual. The Smitten Kitten made new advances in this movement by advocating against toxic toys, before either of the other store chains. What do you think the future of this movement will be? How much competition do stores like this give the more "traditional" adult stores?
A-The perspective at AVN was that these two customer bases are entirely different from each other. Like two different worlds living side by side. There are the people who want the old school "novelty" paradigm and people who want a new "sexual exploration" kind of paradigm. I think that it is ok to be wherever you want to be on that spectrum. My main concern is that people are taking things designed to be used as a joke and using them on their bodies. That brings up health issues. I think eventually the attitude is going to shift more fully because as people are becoming more open. As Oprah talks about sex there are going to be more people wanting to shop at the kind of place where Oprah shops. They are not going to want to shop in a hostile environment. I was at a store in Denver that actually had a mechanical parrot that screamed "fuck you" when you walk in the door. That was interesting to me because it is already so stressful for a lot of people to be in this kind of environment. I think the staff did it because it was funny to them. They liked it, and that is fine. But it put me off as a customer.
L-Do you think Babeland and Good Vibrations are good at marketing to men?
A-That is interesting. I feel like the bigger a store gets, the more it progresses to marketing towards heterosexual couples. That is really hard because ultimately you have to stay in business. And ultimately there are far more heterosexual couples. I think my problem with that is that it feels a little more narrow. The hardest thing as you get bigger is to stay true to yourself and really be for everybody. Cause that's not the easiest way to make money. But maybe it is the best way to make money. Having diversity of products is really important. There are some products that we don't sell many of, but we need them in the store because it sets a normalizing tone and shows that we think they are acceptable.
L-The Smitten Kitten has done a lot of work to raise awareness about toxic toys. What kind of effect do you see this having on consumers and manufacturers now that you are five years in?
A-It is interesting cause we get a lot of people in the store who have heard about toxic toys and they will ask, "I don't want any toys that are toxic, do you guys sell that stuff?" That is always funny to me cause we started that! But I shouldn't be mad about that because it is really an indicator of our success. Enough people have told enough people and it doesn't matter where the message is coming from. The point is about taking care of your body. That is why we have the guidelines up there [CATT] so you can shop where ever you want to shop. That is not the best money making strategy. But our hope is that people will respect us caring about their health above our own profit margins that they will shop with us. And ultimately that has proven to be true.
L-I have noticed a huge difference in the amount of people who know about toxic toys. Compared to just a few years ago...it is crazy!
A-It is crazy! Just five years away from the Smitten Kitten starting, it feels like, "How could no one have cared about this?" But I think that when you isolate people and you are hesitant to talk about something it can get missed. And then you have health professionals with zero education on the subject, and that makes for a dangerous situation in terms of public health. People are not able to access the information they need. People are not willing to share information. Hopefully that is a huge part of what we are doing, letting people feel ok about talking about this. Also, medical professionals need to know more about these issues. I had a guy who came in and had gone to four different dermatologists before they realized the problem was his masturbation sleeve. He dealt with that for months. There are people that think they have an STI when they just have a vibrator that they need to throw away. And that's always really sad to me, because if a medical professional just knew, their situation could have been solved quickly and easily.
L-Any predictions on the future of sex toys or the future of the Smitten Kitten?
A-We're gonna go big. That's what I want, a better shopping situations for people all over. I love shopping online but there is something about the in-store experience. Being able to look at the toys and pick them up is irreplaceable. If we could be in more cities, I think that would be great!
L-How can people best find out information about TSK and the new Denver store?
A-We have information on the website and on the blog. The new Denver address is going to be on the front page of the website.
L-What should people do if they live near Denver and want to work for TSK?
A-We've done our interviewing and hiring for this round. When we do hire we post it on the website under employment opportunities. We are always interested in resumes and we keep them on file.
L-Is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers?
A-Consider buying local and shopping with us. We are the little guy. We are never going to be able to be the cheapest place possible to buy from. But what you are supporting with your money is people getting comprehensive information about sex toys and their bodies. You are supporting the work of the Coalition Against Toxic Toys (CATT) which doesn't make us any money. We really deeply care about our customers. I am so grateful for our amazing customers. We wouldn't be expanding without your support. Thank you so much!
Smitten Kitten Denver is now open for business at 70 Broadway, Denver, CO. The Grand Opening is April 24th 7-9pm with Tristan Taormino and Adrianna Nicole. Also, don't forget to check out the Sex is Fun Book Launch Party! at the Minneapolis store on June 1st, from 7-9pm. For more information about these and other events, check their blog.
Write the Author: Laura Rad