ost sex shops I’ve experienced have been reminiscent of a 7-Eleven. You buy the lube equivalent of a bottom shelf Sutter Home rosé and then shuffle home, feeling sad about being a woman. The moment I enter Feelmore, the only female-owned sex shop in the East Bay, I am aware that something is different.
Nenna Joiner opened Feelmore in early 2011, and she moves through the shop exuding the confidence of ownership. Two minutes after I walk in and ask to schedule an interview with her, she pulls out a folding chair for me and hands me her laptop to take notes. Nenna is casually pulled together in a chambray button up and jeans. She has close-cropped hair and diamond studs like classy exclamation points. In front of us, one woman films another woman talking about the merits of various dildos. The woman filming wears a T-shirt that declares, “I love my vagina.” I have the sense of being in the office of an alarmingly cool high school nurse. Nenna may as well have said: Sit down kid and let’s figure this thing out.
TThe lighting is low and the place hums with instrumental jazz. Behind Nenna, the back wall is covered in delicate black and white floral wallpaper. Nenna motions to the side walls, which are painted black, and covered with erotic paintings, framed prints and pristine shelves of merchandise. She says what makes her sex shop different are the things that sex shops aren’t supposed to have, like art and comedy and feelings. Apparently, couples often dance on Feelmore’s wood floors.
The place is immersive. I feel like sex is another era, and I’ve entered a history class where someone lets you explore another time by having you read old letters and look at war posters and smell some perfume that was popular back then.
When I ask Nenna to tell me a story that captures the spirit of her shop, she tells me that a few years ago, she found out that a customer was a drug and alcohol addiction counselor. She told him about her mom, an alcoholic who was going through the liver transplant process at the time. She remembers the man telling her that with an addiction like alcoholism, the person has to want to change, and that there is nothing anyone else can do to force that change. A year later, the same man came back into Feelmore and asked after her mom, who had since died. Joiner ends the story by telling me that local business is about staying with people through the life cycle.
She gestures at the store around us. “I mean, I’ve been around for people’s breakups, makeups, marriages, divorces, new partners — all of it,” she says.
Nenna embraces the level of visibility that comes with running a sex shop. When I ask her to tell me about a memorable moment with a customer, she starts to tell me about a man coming in and wanting to buy the shop’s only platinum vibrator.
“That was my unicorn!,” she begins.
Then she stops and starts to tell me a different story, one about being with her partner in a Safeway parking lot in the extremely white town of Guerneville. She noticed two white guys staring at her, and thought it was because she is black. But then they came up to her. The younger man told Nenna that he really liked Feelmore, and he introduced the older man as his dad. He told his dad that Feelmore is a sex shop and Nenna is the owner.
When she tells me this, Nenna shrugs. “This kind of thing happens all the time, all around the country,” she say.
Part of the reason sons in Safeway parking lots tell their dads about going to Feelmore is that the place is run more like a community center than a sex shop. Nenna tells me that many people first encounter Feelmore by attending the in-shop female comedy nights or political debriefs after city council meetings. She pulls open a drawer and gestures at a stack of cards, apparently belonging to people who are doing what Nenna describes as good work in the community. She points to the same multipurpose drawer as she explains that she has filled out housing applications here for people who come in.
There is something bordering on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch about the number of community-building services Feelmore provides. When I read about Feelmore online, I find out that the place also once partnered with Walgreens to provide free flu shots in the store.
Nenna and I are interrupted by a tiny older woman bearing the day’s mail. The mail woman avoids eye contact with Nenna as she hands her a bundle of packages and a catalog. The catalog is for lingerie. Nenna pauses over it noncommittally, the way someone might scan an ancient issue of Good Housekeeping at the dentist’s office.
She rips open the first package and pulls out a 1974 Penthouse calendar titled “The American Dream.” She flips to a page titled Supernatural Dream, which shows a black woman, nude from the waist up, framed by an opulent afro shaped like peacock plumage.
“This is Azizi,” she says. “I got this issue of Penthouse for her.”
She admires Azizi for a minute before telling me that this particular picture of Azizi was over the bed of Dick Hallorann, the cook character in “The Shining.”
I want to know if, on top of all the other hats she wears in this place, Nenna is a historian too. She says yes. I ask her what she makes of this image of Azizi from 1974. Does she share my discomfort about imagining some white guy buying this Penthouse magazine from her and putting Azizi in his bedroom? Her job, she thinks, is to sell images in a way that can’t be separated from the context of how and when they were produced.
She laughs and says that, “For each Playboy or Penthouse or piece of artwork in the store, there is a story. So, ideally, a person leaves here with a vibrator and a Playboy with a story.”
Nenna talks about Huey P. Newton’s and Martin Luther King’s interviews in Playboy. She tells me that, for any given year, she can say what the January and December issues of Playboy would be like.
Most of the things the sex shop has in print, she says, tend not to be African American bodies, because buyers “don’t collect brown people.” But she tries to have African American representation both in the artwork on the walls and the print items for sale.
Nenna’s response to my question about what she wishes more people thought about when they thought about sex, is, “I wish people didn’t think so much about sex.” I take it she’s getting at the kind of anatomical, nether parts banging together idea of sex, the picture some of us conjure when someone mentions getting laid.
She says she encourages people to be creative in how they think about sex. She mimes picking up a sex toy and putting it in her ear. She says she often tells people that, whatever it is, it doesn’t just have to go in between your legs or your breasts.
Nenna puts down her imaginary sex toy to tell me that Feelmore’s job is like providing customers with a multi-pack of crayons and having them color a sky. She says that with the right facilitation, the people who’ve been told their whole lives that the sky can only be blue are able to pick up the purple crayon. I did not before think it was possible for someone to talk earnestly and captivatingly about how sex is a sky that you draw, and that the sky can be any color.
In my folding chair, which sits just inches from a stray dildo perched on a low wall, I type out what may be at the heart of the afternoon’s conversation: Sex is a purple sky.
[this story originally appeared on Ripple.News]