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Stiff competition
Savannah's adult emporiums are working hard to stymie the stigma


Sex toys have become a multi-billion dollar business over the last 20 years, as consumer attitudes about all things sexual have shifted. Concurrently, retail establishments are morphing into “couple-friendly” boutiques, attractively laid out, not unlike certain mall shops that display pretty shelves of linens, bath oils and gift baskets of shampoos and body oils.

You can get those things, to be sure, at Savannah’s 18-and-over adult emporiums. You can also pick up blow-up dolls, vibrators, DVDs, fantasy costumes, games, positioning cushions and numerous lifelike artificial body parts, to do with what you will.

“I didn’t invent the stuff,” says Reggie Howie, owner of Savannah’s two Sunset Novelties stores. “I wish I did, I’d be a millionaire.”

Howie, a native of Wilmington, N.C., runs 12 Sunset shops altogether, most of them in Florida. He came to Savannah eight years ago with a business plan that included no mention of the word “adult” on the stores’ facades, or anything that gives away what lies inside.

The old stereotype of the sleazy porno bookstore or videodrome, frequented by leering pervs in trenchcoats, is quickly disappearing.

Yet there are people, Howie knows, who’ll look past his extensive inventory of sexy lingerie, shoes and gag gift ideas and focus on the other stuff.

“It’s not my place to differentiate,” he explains. “It is what it is. I’ve got customers who call it a porn store. If one of my employees calls it a porn store, or a sex shop, they get fired. Because it’s all about perception and attitude. We’ve taken this stance and I believe in it.

“I spent a lot of money to make the store have some atmosphere to it, something different.”

His blueprint, at least in giving his business a vague and non-descriptive moniker, was already set in Savannah stone.

“I called my store Sunset Novelties because when I got here, the player in town was Joker’s and The Comedy Store,” Howie says. “I played off the name of a place that’s been here a long time, that people know what kind of a store it is.

“I wanted something that was fun, not intrusive as far as being in-your-face type stuff, but once people see the name they’d go ‘Wait a minute … I want to stop in there.’ And that kick-starts your business. I didn’t want to wait five years, like your average business, to start showing profits.”

Shelby Frost opened Joker’s in 1976. Born in Savannah, she was a tenacious and driven businesswoman who knew that to succeed, she needed to find a niche that was unfilled in the city.

Joker’s and its sister business The Comedy Store are, Frost insists, simply novelty shops with a decidedly adult spin. They sell a lot of “bachelorette party supplies,” wacky parlor games and semi-naked greeting cards, alongside the hardcore material.

Frost, who’s in her mid 50s, runs things with her thirtysomething daughter Salena. That’s the two of them you see on billboards, and on the sides of city buses, either in photographs or cutesy animated images.

Those pictures are there for a reason, Frost explains. “We’re hometown girls. It’s an image. A lot of the things that we sell are personal, and it relaxes the public so that they know it’s class, and that there’s nothing wrong with it. It takes that stigma away from it all.”

Making the customer comfortable – and not intimidated – is her first order of business.

The 18-member staff has strict marching orders. “They’re not allowed to even talk to my customers until they’ve been with me six weeks,” says Frost. “Because there are certain words that we don’t use – words that the public may use, because it’s their form of communication.

“But as soon as they talk with my staff, and they realize we’re truly educated to not only what the sex toys will do, but how the fart machine works … so they’re very experienced in what you need, and they can tell you about the products.”

They’ll also leave you alone to peruse, if that’s your preference.

“We have people – doctors, nurses – who sit in the car sweating bullets because they grew up thinking the old dirty, seedy bookstore,” Howie explains. “That’s the way their perception is.

“They lost an office bet and they have to go buy a gag gift, so they’re sitting out there sweating bullets. They come into the store, they meet us, they talk to us, we help them find what they’re looking for. And they make the comment ‘This is nothing like what I thought.’ That’s what I wanted to hear.”

Frost, who says her regular customers include “lawyers, doctors, even my gynecologist,” found out over time what worked and what didn’t.

“Everything that adult stores do, that stigma, we go in the other direction. We are the Gucci of it all; I’m not interested in being anything but that.”

Says Salena Frost: “We don’t cater to the sex industry. We cater to couples, and women. People like us. We created a store that we would feel comfortable in.

“Women have a totally different view of sex. Women want to be romanced – although I hate to generalize. And we are women-owned and women-run, so it has a totally different feel from a male-owned sex store. Or novelty store.”

New to the city is Starship, which calls itself an “adult fantasy super store.” Now 23 outlets strong, with offices in Atlanta, Starship was recently “grandfathered in” when it took over the lease on an out-of-business local boutique.

“I actually looked at Savannah a few years ago,” company president Kelly Rogers says, “and just couldn’t find a suitable location at the time. Then this opportunity came up and we took it.”

Rogers believes competition is good for everybody. “The stores wouldn’t survive in communities if there wasn’t a want and a need,” he says. “I guess that’s the easiest way to put it.”

It falls to city zoning administrator Randolph Scott to determine whether an adult-oriented business fits this definition (from section 8-3002 of the Savannah zoning ordinance):

Specialty shops: Specialized retail shops which are normally associated with and restricted to general gift items, or special-interest boutique items.

Or this one:

Adult entertainment establishments: Retail or service establishments which are characterized by an emphasis on specified sexual activity and/or specified anatomical areas, including but not limited to:

Any book store, video store or other establishment in which a substantial portion of its stock-in-trade is devoted to printed matter or visual representation of specified sexual activities or specified anatomical areas.

“If you want to be a full adult store,” Rogers says, “there’s hoops you gotta go through. The Savannah ordinance, the way it works, like a lot of cities and counties, they have to allow a certain percentage of adult material.”

Scott, who insists he’s “pro-business,” conducts periodic, unannounced inspections of the adult boutiques, checking to see that the real hardcore stuff hasn’t become the bulk of the inventory, and that such material is not visible through the windows or doorway, from the sidewalk or the street.

Although “dirty” is, more or less, in the eye of the beholder, no retailer wants a fight with the city. The zoning rules are relatively lax for “specialty shops,” while getting tagged as an “adult entertainment establishment” means this, among other undesirables:

(36c). Each adult entertainment establishment shall be located a minimum of 1,500 feet away from any residentially-zoned area, dwelling, church, school, government-owned or managed building open for public assembly, or park.

Just as there are places in Savannah that sell (or rent) nothing but hardcore adult DVDs, many cities go beyond the “specialty shops” model and peddle a full line of porn – right down to the private “viewing booths” in the back. “We’ve never put a booth in one of our stores,” says Rogers. “Because we don’t believe in that whole sleazy side of things.”

Neither do the Frosts – or Reggie Howie, since his original conception for Sunset Novelties was a Victoria’s Secret-type lingerie shop. He started selling adult DVDs, and soon they were making up a large percentage of his sales.

Racy nighties and sexy shoes still make up a good part of his inventory.

“I don’t have any problems here in Savannah,” Howie says. “No problems at all. And that’s the way I want to keep it. I’m grateful to be in business, to provide something different from what most people think that we are.”

All of Savannah’s adult boutique owners are well aware that, no matter how dignified their shops, no matter how community-minded they are (both Howie and the Frosts are active with local charities), someone in the area is going to take the moral high ground and object to their line of business.

Says Howie: “I really don’t care what other people think. If you come into my store and you deem it that way, that’s your right. That’s your opinion. Just like I have my rights and my opinions.”

Shelby Frost takes her own sort of high ground. “There’s always going to be those people,” she admits. “But, you know, couples are staying together longer, and I think this is very healthy in a society where families have fallen apart.

“We are strongly in support of families staying together. That’s the only thing that’s going to save all of us.”

“My goal,” adds Howie, “is to live a life where I treat people the way I want to be treated. We don’t hurt people here.

“I equate it with alcoholism. You look at me like I’m a sleazeball, but there are bars on every corner – which I don’t have a problem with, but how many people have died from drunk drivers? Now tell me the last time somebody died of a dildo insertion?”