Stimulating business proposition (Womyns' Ware).
To call Womyns' Ware a sex-toy store doesn't quite do the fledgling business justice. The term tends to conjure up images of a business with blacked-out windows, save for a few stencilled words promising triple-X treats, backstore movie booths offering a thrill for a quarter, and a clientele that is predominantly male.
Located in the heart of Vancouver's lesbian community, Womyns' Ware challenges many of the cliches associated with the `sex-toy' industry. The storefront windows are wide open and feature whimsical displays. Both the owners and their staff are highly knowledgeable about the diverse product lines the store carries.
Nearly two years after opening the doors, Janna Sylvest and Otter Louis have a successful business employing their philosophy of sexual empowerment for women. When the two met, Louis worked for a large regional drugstore chain, and Sylvest was working as a lawyer. The transition from lawyer to entrepreneur was one that Sylvest had been planning for some time.
"While you're practicing law you spend a lot of time thinking of ways to get out of practicing law," she explains. A lengthy illness forced her to re-evaluate what she was doing with her life. "The law was killing me. I didn't have a focus. Eventually I came to the same focus as Otter. Basically, I wanted to be a social activist for the empowerment of women's sexuality."
Sylvest's undergraduate degree in business coupled with Louis' extensive retail experience gave the couple the skills they needed to set up their business. From the very inception, they knew that there would be customers for their store.
Prior to the '90s, New York's Eve's Garden and San Francisco's Good Vibrations were the only women-owned suppliers of sex toys in North America. In 1992, Toys in Babeland opened in Seattle's predominantly lesbian and gay Capital Hill area. Louis and Sylvest consulted with the ownersand realized the feasibility of their dream. Their intuition was correct: women wanted safe, nice environments in which to buy quality products to enhance their sexual lives.
But quality doesn't come cheap, and Sylvest and Louis are opposed to stocking inferior products that at best are novelties, and at worst are potentially dangerous. That's why rubber dildos (especially adept at collecting bacteria) and cheap battery-operated vibrators won't be found at Womyns' Ware. Instead, non-porous silicone dildos and Japanese-engineered vibrators stock the shelves of the 1,200 square-foot retail space.
"I firmly believe that if the products sold [by some of our competitors] were for anything but sex, they wouldn't be on the market," says Louis.
Part of the Womyns' Ware mission is education. To this end, the women produce a regular sex-toy advice column, which is published in Lezzie Smut (a Vancouver lesbian sex magazine), The Open Door (a newsletter for Northern BC/Yukon lesbians), and Womyns' Ware's own website and sex-toy guide. And, of course, there is a lot of one-to-one education that happens inside the store.
"We don't let people walk around looking lost. We approach our clientele in a non-confrontational way," says Louis.
While their location, as well as their product-mix, should suggest a predominantly lesbian clientele, Sylvest says this is not the case.
"We see quite a lot of straight women and straight men. We offer a large variety of products that are fabulous for straight couples," she says. "Womyns' Ware wouldn't exist without our straight women customers. The store is about the celebration of women's sexuality -- regardless of sexual orientation."
One of the challenges that people outside of the store perceived was the fact that Sylvest and Louis are lovers.
"We had some women say our business would be unstable because we're lovers. Is that ever homophobic! Every small business is a mom-and-pop shop," says Sylvest, adding, "She's the best business partner I've ever had."
Louis concurs, saying "when you know someone that well you can make decisions without consultation," but concedes that "in-sync menstrual cycles" can be a little trying.
After only two years in business, they want to expand their business horizons. In the future, the women hope to create outlets for their products across Canada. Currently, they're working with Ottawa's Mother Tongue Books to open a "Womyns' Ware Xpress." Other cities they are considering for expansion include Victoria and Halifax. In the meantime, they will continue to expand their own product line and spread the good word about women's sexual empowerment.
The Womyns' Ware Sex Toy Guide and product catalogue is available for $5, the cost of which is applied to customers' first order.
phone: 1-888-WYM-WARE; fax: 604-254-5472; mail: Womyns' Ware 896 Commercial Drive Vancouver, BC, V5L 3Y5