Montreal has 26. Toronto has 45. Vancouver has 42. Winnipeg has three.
Currently, there are three sex toy stores in Winnipeg: two Love Nest locations and one Adam and Eve brick-and-mortar (the only one in Canada).
While Spencer’s Gifts has locations in Polo Park and Kildonan Place malls that sell functional adult toys, these are marketed as “novelty” items. The Smart Doll Place, which sells sex dolls, distributes out of Winnipeg but doesn’t currently have a storefront.
There have been other stores in the past, but few have managed to stick around. While there are a few additional lingerie retailers, for Winnipegers looking to purchase sex toys, there are not a lot of physically available options, and the owners of the stores that do exist have had to fight tooth and nail to stay in business.
The gradual construction of the Love Nest
Two of the three sex toy stores in Winnipeg are Love Nest locations. Linda Zuzanski owns Love Nest, which will be 32 years old this month.
“We started with home parties in 1983, and we did that until 1988, and that’s when I started my own company,” Zuzanski says. Home parties are hosted by a sales representative from a particular company, often without brick-and-mortar shops. In addition to sex toys, home parties are popular with a lot of different types of products, from makeup to Tupperware.
“We found Winnipeg very conservative, a conservative city to deal in. People who couldn’t come to a home party wanted to shop in my home, so that’s why, in 1990, we opened our first store on St. Anne’s Road.
“It was very scary, because I was a single mom, and I was going from just paying rent for an apartment to paying rent on a storefront as well, and I had a full-time job at the time.”
Zuzanski was able to gradually grow the store property a few hundred feet at a time, until it reached 1,300 sq ft in 1998. She says “you take that big step and hope that you’re doing the right thing, and all along it appeared to be the right thing.”
Zuzanski began franchising the store a few years earlier, selling to an owner who opened locations in 1997 and 1999 on Main Street and Portage and Westwood, respectively.
Five years ago, the franchises were sold back to Zuzanski. For a few years, she ran all of them but eventually closed the stores on St. Anne’s Road and Portage and Westwood “and opened a great, big, huge superstore on Taylor,” in addition to the Main Street location.
Zuzanski says aside from the fact that Love Nest “had seven years of home parties, so we had a reputation,” she is not sure why other stores have not survived.
Zuzanski does not claim that Love Nest has cornered the sex toy market in Winnipeg, but it is the only pre-Adam and Eve shop that has managed to stay in business.
There used to be Unique Boutique on Portage, Discreet Boutique on Ellice, Smitten in Osborne, Fantasy Boutique on Albert, in addition to companies that ran (and still run) home parties or operate through a direct sales associate.
The brick and-mortar stores have closed for a variety of reasons, from Smitten closing after a fire to Discreet Boutique citing harassment and issues with panhandlers. New businesses have not taken their place.
Fighting to stay in the garden; or, Why Adam and Eve’s only brick-and-mortar is in Winnipeg
Adam and Eve is the largest retailer of sex toys in the United States, both in brick-and-mortar and online sales, but there is only one physical location in Canada, which is in Winnipeg.
The location is owned by Rosa Colavito-Palao, along with her partner and her brother. They opened the store eight years ago when they moved back to Winnipeg after living in the US. Colavito-Palao says “it was all about being exposed to the brand, because in the States, there’s over 70 of them.”
Colavito-Palao says their first few years in Winnipeg were rocky because of discrimination from banks and landlords.
“At first, seeing the other stores, we were a bit apprehensive, and we had a difficult time finding a location that would approve us because of the type of store that it is,” she says.
“We were turned down by quite a few landlords. Also, originally, we wanted a loan, so we went to many banks in Winnipeg and were turned down by the majority of them.
“They loved the business plan, it looked fabulous, but they just wouldn’t sign on. It was kind of scary. And these are main banks who said, ‘we love your plan.’ I sat in many meetings where I pitched it, had all beautiful numbers and was told, ‘no, we don’t think so. It’s the content that we can’t get on board with,’” she says.
“Everyone wants to think that Winnipeg is sex-friendly, and it is moreso these years, but when we started out, we had a really difficult time. That’s changed, and we did find a location (on St. James St), so someone was open to the idea, and we’ve grown since then.
“It was a few rocky years, before people got to know the brand and what we were about and what we could offer, and now we just hear good reviews.”
Colavito-Palao says while Adam and Eve stores have also had difficulty in some areas of the United States, many have not faced resistance from the business community. “It’s not just Winnipeg, but it’s particular states. Other more progressive states don’t bat an eye at it.”
She says that the environment is “still pretty hostile. (Sex toy stores are) still not easy to find, because Winnipegers tend to be very reserved, and I don’t say that in a derogatory way, but perhaps they don’t understand quite how the store works or stores like it, so I feel like it’s still difficult to get a loan and again to get a landlord.”
How to open an adult toy store in Winnipeg
While business might be fairly stable for Zuzanski and Colavito-Palao, both say that the initial barriers to the sex toy business in Winnipeg can be punishing.
“It’s a huge investment, and 99 per cent of landlords will not rent to you,” Zuzanski says.
Colavito-Palao says Adam and Eve “didn’t break even for three-and-a-half years.” Because of the barriers to loans and commercial space, “you need to have deep, deep pockets or a way of borrowing money” to get into the sex toy business.
According to both shop owners, the rise in online retailers have not really had an effect on their businesses.
“It was a little bit scary for the past three years, because we’ve had major construction at the corner of Waverley and Taylor, and people couldn’t get to us from the southeast end of the city,” she says. But aside from that bump, Zuzanski says her business has been very stable for the past 25 years.
“A lot of people want to touch and feel. They want to compare and know how things work,” Zuzanski says. “Also, a lot of the toys nowadays are rechargeable, which can make them very expensive, and if I’m buying something expensive, I want to know how to work it. I don’t want to read a manual, and some of these manufacturers have, like, 20-page manuals.”
While Adam and Eve has a comprehensive online shop, Colavito-Palao says “people will come in and say ‘I ordered stuff online. It wasn’t what I thought it would be.’ or ‘I’d just like to touch it or see it, and I want to know more of how to use it,’ so it’s specific enough I think that we still do really well as a brick-and-mortar.”
“It’s pretty intimate, whatever they’re buying, and people want to see it and feel it and know that it’s healthy and not going to hurt them and how to use it properly,” she says. “That’s saved our brick-and-mortar.”
Colavito-Palao also says an overall decrease in sexual stigma in Winnipeg is needed.
“We only have one sex therapist in the city. I’d like to see more of those,” she says. “We offer free classes once a month to folks on different aspects of sexual health, so I just feel like any kind of information that can get out there would help a lot.”
“We have plenty of people who are older who come in, who say ‘I had to drink some wine to come in here. I felt really uncomfortable,’ but when they leave, they always say ‘I’ll come again. This was a lovely experience.’”
“It’s kind of a taboo. You do have sex, you want to have good sex, but you just don’t go there,” to “the dark, danky image people have in their heads,” she says.
“I just want Winnipegers to broaden their horizons, see if you can do something different or new and also normalize it. You’ll see that people are welcoming and non-judgmental and are here to help you.”
Published in Volume 74, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 9, 2020)