Fun With Lipsticks and Dildos

The play's the thing

Some stores chain their merchandise to the racks like caged beasts; some booby-trap the stuff with exploding security tags, like the devices the CIA planned for the assassination of Castro; some employ salespeople who specialize in making you feel like the lowest worm on earth; others hire sycophants who fawn and flatter, all the while fixing beady eyes on your wallet. The ways and means of serving customers vary, but the goal is always the same: to sell the most things and make the most money.

The notion that people will open their purses in response to either (a) an almost fetishized level of service, where one's every wish is cravenly anticipated, or (b) a frosty hauteur that supposedly enhances a label's snob appeal has lately been joined by (c) the theory that allowing the shopper to run free, unencumbered, presumably unwatched, like the proverbial kid in the candy store, may actually garner the biggest profits of all. This revolutionary approach was pioneered by Barnes & Noble, whose owners realized that maybe they'd sell more if they just provided a comfy chair and let you read in peace (so what if some books suffered cappuccino stains?). And, of course, the gamble paid off, leaving a trail of small bookshops bankrupt in its wake.

LVMH, the French company that recently opened the first American branch of Sephora, a glittering palace of makeup at 555 Broadway in Soho, is betting that applying the B&N principle to cosmetics will have the same scorched-earth effect. The Sephora store is a fantasia of lacquered black counters and lipstick-red carpeting: 9000 square feet of patent medicines, potions, and perfumes, and not a spritzing salesperson in sight. No unctuous hawkers look disapprovingly at your pores and prattle ominously about makeovers; no garishly lit full-length three-way mirrors make you feel fat and frumpy; no vultures on commission push elixirs you never heard of down your throat.

"I tell you, my dear, it is impressive," an obviously well-fixed matron murmured to her equally prosperous friend on a recent visit, gazing in awe at the recessed, movie-star lighting, the interactive screens, the seemingly endless wall of alphabetized scents (from Armani to Versace), the miles of shelves brimming with obscure European brands. The black-suited Sephora workers speak only when spoken to, and don't use your innocent questions ("Do you sell tweezers here?") to shoehorn you into conversations you don't want to have. Sephora has discovered what the bored security guards at Duane Reade knew all along: what people really want to do when they hit the beauty counter is to try on products till they smell like Belle Watling, slap funny colors on their cheeks like a kindergartner, and then maybe break down and fork over a few bucks for some Urban Decay nail polish or a tube of Dior Mascara Flash.

Strange as it seems, a similarly giddy, devil-may-care delight pervades a newly opened jewel box of a sex shop, Toys in Babeland, at 94 Rivington Street. Across from the imposing First Roumanian-American Congregation ("micha at 5 p.m. daily"), in what was previously an Indonesian social club, the proprietors have set up their products in such an endearing manner that even those whose innards shrivel at words like clitoral stimulator and butt plug may dare to venture inside.

If Sephora's great gift to the consumer is to throw tens of thousands of makeup samples in her direction and let her go wild, Toys in Babeland embraces much the same principle with far less conventional merchandise.

The shop's brilliant innovation is to liberate the merchandise from its salacious packaging and let it stand proud and free on sleek shelves and tables. Cheerful dildos in aqua and marigold are lined up like toy soldiers just begging to be fondled; whips decorate a wall as gracefully as riding crops at Hermès; harnesses look like they're ready to walk the runway at the Alexander McQueen show.

"We think the things sell themselves," Claire Cavanagh, a co-owner, confides. Though she's happy to satisfy visitors' curiosity, Claire is as circumspect as a black-garbed Sephora staffer if a customer indicates a desire for solitude. There's no pressure to buy, let alone acknowledge anyone else.

Claire believes that the leering boxes, usually decorated with lascivious cartoons of big-boobed, dim-witted, spread-eagled babes, are the reason lots of women feel squeamish about sex toys. Once freed of their sinister cardboard environs, these frisky little toys are about as threatening as goofy tabletop decorations. Even the most arcane, bizarre merchandise is defanged: when a customer does muster the courage to ask why an Asian-made double-duty dildo has one appendage shaped like an elephant and the other like the head of a little girl, Claire explains, "In Japan there's a law against penis-shaped sex toys."

Emboldened, a visitor forgets for a moment that she's in the sort of place that has made her queasy for years and begins peppering Claire with questions. So, do guys come in here too? "Oh, yes, lots of guys—but not creepy ones! Nice ones!" Anything selling particularly well right now? "The Wild Thing Anal Pleaser!"

Even "The Tongue" turns out to be just a pugnacious pink-and-white plastic plaything. Claire expertly flips in a battery, turns "The Tongue" on, and sticks its buzzing, floppy end in her ear. "I think this is the most perverse thing in the whole store!" she giggles.

 
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