“Gay Pride is our Christmas—it’s Christmas in June!” says Gus Salce, the proprietor of THE STARTING LINE (180 Eighth Avenue), grinning at the prospect of those happy out-of-town hordes, starved for cheeky gay merchandise, arriving at his door in a pre-Pride spending frenzy. Salce’s shop is in the heart of Chelsea, a neighborhood that was until recently hailed as the new gay ghetto, replacing Christopher Street, which long held that distinction. Now, an increasing number of straight hand-holders crowd the sidewalks on sunny afternoons, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of same-sex smoochers out for a stroll too.
At the Starting Line, punchy yet tasteful merch is the standard: A shelf of faux-faded advertising T-shirts have old-fashioned illustrations for products and services that include “Man’s Lumber” and “Drill Instructor” ($19.99). Similarly, a trucker hat sports a cute picture of a rooster along with one word: cock ($19.99). But not everything relies on language for a punchline: Cargo shorts ($89.99) that appear to be made of camouflage fabric on closer examination reveal that their khaki-green-and-black pattern is composed of interlocking peace symbols. This print is also available on a slinky ribbed undershirt ($35); the whole outfit would not only be fun to wear on Pride, it’s also a perfect ensemble for those fabulous anti-Republican demonstrations coming up at the end of the summer.
If a degree of subtlety characterizes the offerings at the Starting Line, the same cannot be said for the wares at another Chelsea venue, the vast RAINBOW STATION (207 Eighth Avenue). Rows of whips line the wall behind the cash register, jars of something called Boy Butter Personal Lubricant fill the display tables, and fully half the store is given over to naughty videos. Still, that leaves the other half for frisky fashion items, which include T-shirts that read “Queen of the Fucking Universe” in lavender ($14.99); baby-blue spandex swimsuits that say “attitude” across the posterior ($59.99); and rainbow-striped bikinis, the two pieces being a thong and a teensy bra top ($43.99). Giant rhinestone-festooned platform shoes for clomping down Fifth Avenue are $60. (Pick up the requisite feather boa, in hot pink or royal blue, for $7.99 from GIRLPROPS at 33 East 8th Street.)
Rainbow Station isn’t the only Chelsea shop with rainbow in its name. There’s also RAINBOWS AND TRIANGLES (192 Eighth Avenue), a card-and-tchotchke store with, believe it or not, a neon-lit back room, which we don’t deign to enter. In the front room, however, we fall for the rainbow-hued teacups and saucers, painted with particular delicacy and costing only $29.99 for a set of four. (Wondering how rainbows and triangles became symbols of the community but too embarrassed to ask? The rainbow flag was created by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 and flew for the first time that year in the city’s Pride parade; the triangle has a darker history. The Nazis forced homosexuals in the death camps to wear pink triangle patches; now that symbol has been reclaimed as an emblem of militancy.)
Because so much of the stuff we find is aimed at guys, we call our friend Claire Cavanah, the co-owner of TOYS IN BABELAND, a cheerful sex shop for women that opened a branch at 43 Mercer Street in Soho last fall. So Claire, is Pride your Christmas? “It isn’t at our Lower East Side store, but we have hopes for Soho,” she tells us. Since we remember seeing Claire last year at the Dyke March dressed in a big papier-mâché vagina costume and looking near tears—”People keep bumping into my pussy!” she wailed—we wonder if she’ll be wearing it again this weekend. She’s not sure, but the store does plan to have what it calls “an army of lovers” handing out Babeland swag at the parade. (Sadly, the gratis booty won’t contain the shop’s bestseller, a bunny-topped vibrator known as the Rabbit Habit.) In any case, whether or not she sees an upswing in sales doesn’t really matter. “It’s Pride all year long in our store: this business sprang from gayness. We’re not ‘tolerant’ or ‘inclusive’—we’re gay. Ours is a prideful world.”