Editor’s Note: Belmont Shore — the Second Street shopping district — long has been the standard by which all retail in Long Beach has been measured. This series is exploring how the business environment has changed, and how business owners are meeting that challenge.
It may come as a surprise, but sex isn’t recession-proof.
Since the recession began taking its toll on the bottom lines of businesses starting in late 2007, Joy Starr said the past three years has required her to cut costs wherever she could to keep her nearly 19-year-old retail store, The Rubber Tree, open seven days a week at 5018 E. Second St.
While many storefronts on Second Street in Belmont Shore have been closing around her, including the neighboring 5016 E. Second St., the former location of Arbor By the Bay, Starr said she is optimistic about 2011. After all, Starr has seen her share of trying times and triumphs in the past 19 years as the owner of what is now commonly called a “sex boutique.”
“I understand that this store isn’t for everyone,” Starr said. “But (in 1992), people thought that we’d have flashers and hookers coming in … (Doug) Drummond, the (Third District) councilman at the time, met with us and talked with us. In actuality, a lot more people were excited we were here. All the negativity and bad press did the opposite of what people thought it would do. We received a few ‘rot in hell’ comments, but people came in to see for themselves what the store was about. There were people who tried to get us closed, but once you’re open, that’s hard to do.”
Starr said she opened the store Oct. 2, 1992, with four other partners, all of whom have left and/or been bought out of the business, except Starr’s ex-husband, Larry Starr. In 1999, Starr and her daughter Shana began managing and working on the day-to-day operations of the store.
“Shana had experience in retail, and (in 1999), we moved forward as a family business,” Starr said. “Some people in the community may have thought of me as a loose, wild kind of person for owning this kind of store, but that’s why I wanted to become involved in the Belmont Shore Business Association (BSBA).”
Because The Rubber Tree’s primary items were condoms coupled with a small lingerie stock in the mid-1990s, Starr worked with the city’s Department of Health and Human Services and the city’s higher education institutions to promote safe sex with lectures, information packets, and for college students studying human sexuality, tours of the store.
“People were happy there were condoms here because they needed protection,” Starr said. “Regular people came in — mothers would even buy condoms for their sons as stocking stuffers at Christmas.”
Although The Rubber Tree’s stock has grown to fill the walls of the store, Starr said she has no plans to expand. One of the positive comments she receives from customers is that the smaller store provides a more intimate feeling, and her staff is always willing to help and answer questions about products.
“Our mission is to inform people and give correct information about the proper use of products,” Starr said. “You could change a person’s mind about the business by giving them accurate, clear information.”
The Rubber Tree’s business cards describe the eclectic mix of cards, books, games, massage oils, toys, T-shirts and (of course) condoms as “a unique gift store for lovers.”
The sex retail industry now is manufacturing and distributing more products for couples, Starr said. Yet the traditionally female-focused industry still is offering plenty of products that enhance the woman’s sexual experience. The difference is that items now have better technology and are more well-made than past iterations of sex toys such as vibrators.
“The company we do the most business with is owned by a woman,” Starr said. “The packaging is appropriate and subdued … more of the items are made of medical-grade silicone, instead of latex.”
All customers must be at least 18 years old to venture past The Rubber Tree’s front display of massage oils and Kama Sutra products. Starr said both men and women of various sexual orientations come to the store to shop, especially in the weeks prior to Valentine’s Day Feb. 14.
“We do gift wrapping for free with any purchase every day of the year,” Starr said. “There’s books, lingerie, games … all are very popular items for Valentine’s Day.”
Recently, Starr has been working seven days a week either at the store or doing the store’s accounting/bookkeeping from her Belmont Heights home. On the weekends, a part-time employee comes to help for a few hours, but either Starr or Shana are behind the counter seven days a week.
Starr commented that after nearly 19 years, she never thought she would still be working as much as she does now.
“It’s a love it or hate it store,” Starr said. “But we have so many repeat customers that have been here for years. We’ve received a lot of support from the community, and people from 18 to 90 years old come in here to shop … and our (online) reviews are a testament to how we treat our customers with respect and integrity.”
Starr said she has witnessed significant change in Belmont Shore over the years. Although the number of vacancies on Second Street is high right now, Starr said the public opinion of Belmont Shore — a panacea of good businesses — has remained intact.
“I don’t think (landlords) will have any problem renting places,” Starr said. “I hear from residents that they like the ‘mom and pop’ stores and the diversity of retail here … then there are absentee and local landlords that own property. I’ve seen that the local landlords care much more about the Shore and many are still loyal to the concept of small businesses… I have so much gratitude to them, because they really value the people who rent their properties.”
The challenges of owning a small business do come with rewards. Starr said she can price her products more affordably than corporate stores in the industry, and she can implement her ideal of customer service and community involvement.
“The goal is to open up every day and be here for the customers,” Starr said. “That’s the most important thing.”