Feeling the Midwest Vibes

 Early to Bed founder Searah Deysach.

Early to Bed founder Searah Deysach.

I’m about to hit the road for the final three Vibrator Nation book tour dates of 2017, with stops in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago.

I’m not originally from the Midwest—I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania—but I have a soft-spot for the region. I’m fond of Milwaukee’s rust belt qualities. I like the Great Lakes. And I love a good Portillo’s Chicago-style hot dog.

The Midwest is also home to some of my favorite feminist sex-toy shops: The Tool Shed in Milwaukee, Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, and Early to Bed in Chicago, proving that the sex-positive retail movement isn’t simply a coastal phenomenon.

The Tool Shed was founded in 2004, and in 2008, health and sexuality educator Laura Haave took over the business. When Haave moved to Milwaukee in 2006, she had a checklist of community spaces that were important to her: Where’s the feminist bookstore? The knitting store? The feminist vibrator shop? When the opportunity arose to purchase the Tool Shed and keep it alive as a sex-positive community space, it was, she told me, too good of an opportunity to pass up.

When I interviewed Haave for Vibrator Nation we talked about the value of sex-positive spaces, the challenges of working within a capitalist system, and the role that feminist sex-toy businesses have played in increasing the variety of sex toys on the market and the overall acceptability of talking about sex. We also discussed how she and her staff cater to the Tool Shed’s homegrown clientele. In one of my favorite quotes from the book, Haave said this:

We are an old school brick-and-mortar store. I am here for Milwaukee 100 percent. There might be something that everyone in New York City and San Francisco loves. Fuck you, East Coasters. You know what I mean? It’s too fucking expensive for Milwaukee. We are a blue-collar town. We are in the Midwest. I am not going to carry a $200 vibrator that is a weird shape that no one is asking for. But I will do leg work to carry things that people come in and say, ‘I want this. I have to go to another state to get it, but I’d rather get it from you.’ If people ask for it, then they value it. But I am not going to bring the latest trendy things because everyone has it.

While the opportunity to run a progressive sex-toy store basically fell onto Haave’s lap, the story of Smitten Kitten is quite different. The seeds of what would eventually grow into Minneapolis’s first feminist sex-toy shop were planted when owner Jennifer Pritchett was enrolled in a master’s degree program in gender and women’s studies at the University of Minnesota, Mankato. Pritchett was taking a course that involved putting feminist theory into praxis. She and her classmates decided to reclaim the word “cunt.” They planned a week of “cunt-loving” programming, including screening some of Betty Dodson’s vulva-positive videos. The events caused a campus uproar, prompting important conversations among students, faculty, and administrators about the politics of language, women’s bodies, and empowered sexuality, and ingraining in Pritchett the power of sex-positive activism.

The leap from taking that class to starting Smitten Kitten happened rather organically. Following graduation, Pritchett began working fulltime at Ball State in multicultural affairs, a job, it turned out, she didn’t like. She quit after one semester and returned to Mankato. By that point, the idea of opening up a feminist sex-toy store had taken hold.

A conversation with a former classmate about sex toys—ordering them online and waiting for them to arrive—and the fact that another friend had recently driven eight hours from Minneapolis to Chicago to shop at Early to Bed, got Pritchett thinking about the need for a feminist sex-toy store in Minneapolis. Pritchett put her feminist research skills to work and began looking at other feminist businesses—Good Vibrations, Babeland, A Woman’s Touch, and Early to Bed—to figure out how they did what they did, including what products they sold and where they got them. “We wanted to be the Minneapolis version of those stores, like, ‘Hey, we can do that here.’”

Four hundred miles away in Chicago, Searah Deysach was already running her own feminist sex-toy business. Deysach, an art school grad and professionally trained pastry chef, was looking for something meaningful to do when she realized that Chicago didn’t have an educationally focused and women-friendly sex shop that was comparable to Good Vibrations or Babeland. “The more I thought about the store,” she told me, “the more I thought: ‘This is possible. I can do this.’”

Deysach’s fantasy scenario was that she could hang out at Good Vibrations for a couple of months and its staff would teach her everything she’d need to know about how to run a business like theirs. But by the early 2000s the sex-toy industry had become much more competitive and, according to Deysach, Good Vibrations “shot me down.”

Not to be deterred, Deysach hatched an alternate plan: She went to sex-toy stores, bought products, and looked at the back of the boxes for company contacts, who then put her in touch with distributors. “I spent a lot of money buying things,” she laughed.

She cobbled together $13,000 in start-up money and found a commercial space to rent. With the help of friends, she painted the walls and floor and opened for business. “It was the most do-it-yourself operation.”

Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank always used to say, “There should be a store like Good Vibrations in every shopping mall, in every city, because the more businesses that are doing what Good Vibrations is doing, the better.”

The Midwestern hub of women and queer-friendly sex-toy stores—the Tool Shed, Smitten Kitten, and Early to Bed—have taken elements of the Good Vibrations retail model and retooled them to meet the needs of the diverse, local communities they serve.

As Searah Deysach noted when we first spoke years ago: “We have a college class that comes in [to Early to Bed] every year as part of its, ‘What’s feminist in Chicago’ tour. These were things we once didn’t think would be do-able for Chicago.”