First off, to the Idaho legislator who accused Boise Weekly of "promoting pornography" with our recent series of articles on local adult entertainment: The business of arousing your constituency needs no promoting from me or from anyone else.
After all, what tiny repercussion could an article from a single paper, or for that matter the heckling of a state politician, have on an industry whose annual revenues, according to the New York Times, already exceed $12 billion? That's far more than "legitimate" cinema can muster in a bumper year, and it dwarfs the combined revenues of professional football, baseball and basketball. I'm equally at a loss to describe what new fortification I can provide to a lifestyle whose local embodiments have thrived in the face of marginally legal nudity ordinances, countless "nipple stings" and the desperate objections of puritanical citizens with both God and the law on their side. In the end, naysayer and chronicler alike are like tree branches dangling into a river, vainly gripping at a single relentless, oblivious compulsion.
In other words, sex is big business in Boise. But it is also one built around the most private and personal of cravings. And for that reason, despite the supposed mainstreaming of pornography, few sellers of adult goods feel comfortable talking about their business in their own city.
For instance, the area's longest-lived adult establishment, the awkwardly titled Adult Center: Over 19 in Garden City, recently informed me that the company's owners allow no interviews, advertising or publicity whatsoever. Others, like the couple-oriented sex store Pleasure Boutique and the corporation that owns Spearmint Rhino and Night Moves Gentlemen's Clubs, simply did not return phone calls. Even the big three skin mag publishers, Playboy, Penthouse and Larry Flynt Publishing, wouldn't share their local subscription amounts with BW.
But the skin trade in a Republican state isn't all turned up collars and tight-lipped vendors. I was able, through equal parts annoyance and assurance of my peaceful intentions, to garner the trust of two of Boise's most popular adult retailers, and found a glut of titillating information.
THE HARD COPY
In almost any regional hub but Boise, a cigar store wouldn't be worth bringing up in a discussion of adult entertainment. In those cities, copies of Swank or Barely Legal can be purchased from a corner newsstand as easily as MAD or Better Homes and Gardens, and to draw attention to it would seem quaint. But in Boise, the 60-odd risqué titles lining the back wall of Hannifins Cigar on Main Street make up more than just a slice of old-school eye candy. They are a booming local institution whose significance, according to the sellers, can still border on the constitutional.
"Once, when I was taking in the shipments of magazines," recalls Stephen, an employee of the store for the last four years, "I was pulling out the titles, and I just got freaked out. All this bondage stuff that didn't even look comfortable--it was not sexy, no eroticism to it. And I asked my boss, 'Are you sure you want to carry this?' He said, 'You do realize that you're in control of the first amendment, right? You can send it back if you want to, but somebody here has a taste for it. Otherwise they wouldn't be printing it." Now, Stephen says, "I swallowed my opinion long ago."
How many of this historic shop's 96 years have been spent upholding the lustiest of amendments is hard to determine. Adult magazines have been sold there as long as the current employees, or most Boise old-timers for that matter, can remember. But just as the camera angles and makeup of adult pictorials have changed very little in the last century, time hasn't deadened the appeal of strolling downtown for a pack of smokes and a girlie mag.
"How big of an appetite for porn does Boise have? A huge one," Stephen says while smoking a cigarette next to the display case. "And you never know who is going to have that appetite. I sell it to all sorts of people. Somebody's mother buys it--maybe yours. We'd carry more if we had the shelf space--and not because Hannifins wants to be perceived as a porn shop, because we don't, but because we've got to follow the money. And the money happens to be there. Very, very large amounts of money. Some months it's our bread and butter, which is why I wouldn't get rid of it if you paid me."
He estimates that in any given month--arousal, it seems, knows no season--the store easily sells out of its 75 copies each of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler. Each of the other titles, regardless of names, models or extremity of the relations portrayed, moves at least 10 to 12 copies. The total revenue can't match the tobacco for which the shop is best known, but it isn't far behind. The buyers range from old men to fresh-faced lads to middle-aged women, some claiming to be collectors, others making no claims at all.
"We know what we sell," Stephen says. "Everybody who comes in here knows what we sell. Whether or not you approve of it, or the guy on the hilltop approves of it, those desires still exist. That guy on the hilltop is human, too. He has those desires as well--even if his wife does not approve. But then again, I've probably sold her the stuff, too."
"I love what I do," Mia Severns says as a silent man walks past her into tiny arcades lining the back of Vixen Video on Overland. It is 11 o'clock on a weekday morning and four other men have already passed us during 10 minutes of conversation.
Severns says "Hi" to each as she slowly counts Vixen's last week's worth of earnings, but only one customer stops to talk, requesting change for a five. At the price of one dollar for four minutes of explicit looped video, he'll leave with enough change to have lunch across the street at Big Bun before returning to work.
But this isn't the peak hour, Severns explains. From 10 am to closing time at 1:45 a.m., seven days a week for the last four years, a steady stream of men (and a trickle of women) enter and leave, some with a brown bag full of rented videos, magazines or one of a vast and sometimes menacing selection of toys, some empty-handed. She regularly sees old men, young ladies, men in drag, cops in uniform, even Mormons coming straight from the nearby temple. She greets each with a smile. "It's amazing how busy they are," she says with an amused laugh, almost matronly, and without a hint of derision. "All day, every day."
Like Stephen, Severns can sum up Boise's hunger for porn in a single word: "Huge." Then she adds another word to describe Boise's attitude toward sex as a whole: "Hypocrites." After 12 years working in its strip clubs and porn shops--which she openly labels "the sex industry"--she is a firm believer that there is no safer sex than porn.
"Without this, what entertainment do these adults have?" she asks rhetorically. "This city, and Meridian, Nampa and Caldwell, they need to open their eyes. When you shut these stores down, the crime rate goes up. It's ... a big stress reliever."
Her words fly in the face of Boise city officials and religious moralists who claim that prostitution, violence and drug use follow porn shops like a dust cloud, but Severns insists that the opposite is true--and that those same moralists are her customers. She also contends that Boiseans consume so much porn that an unprecedented expansion is in order. Like an all-porn shop downtown, or an all GBLT store. Or both. The market is not only out there, she says "Hi" to it every morning.