The Pleasure Chest Reflects on Its Legacy, Growth on 45th Anniversary
The conventional image of a sex shop conjures up dim lighting, frosted windows and embarrassed customers darting from aisle to aisle. Not so at the Pleasure Chest. Warm, radiant light fills the space, elegant floral arrangements greet your entry, splashes of red catch your eye and an energized and knowledgeable staff welcomes you in and guides you through your journey. A Pleasure Chest experience is simultaneously disarming and relaxed, a balance that is very carefully crafted. Pleasure Chest stores surprise many who are new to the brand in their conscious embrace of sexuality in all of its forms.
Pleasure Chest unapologetically incorporates niche products into the mix. You may encounter a life-sized, black silicone fist in view of introductory plugs barely the size of a finger — the fist suggestively placed as if to say to onlookers “you may someday be coming back for me.” While the product selection may nudge some customers out of their comfort zone, the Pleasure Chest does not overlook that sex can be silly and playful, scary or new, and deliciously tender. The stores are, most importantly, designed to put people at ease with beautiful displays, wide aisles, plentiful testers and a staff trained and tested to meet every customer where ever they are on their sexual journey.
The Pleasure Chest has had decades to perfect the business model and this fall it celebrates 45 years in business. The company’s first location, which opened in a 47” x 12’ long space in the West Village in 1971, challenged convention by refusing to block out the store windows with XXX, which was standard for any store with adult material. Founders Duane Colglazier and Bill Rifkin aimed to create a department store feel. “We treat our customers just as though they were walking into Gimbel’s to buy a table and chairs,” said Bill Rifkin in an interview in 1972. This simple principle continues to guide and set the Pleasure Chest apart today, now under the leadership of Duane’s nephew Brian Robinson.
“They began by selling waterbeds and quickly came to serve a diverse clientele: from the housewives of Nixon’s moral majority to the gay men of the neighboring West Hollywood. By refusing to block out their windows, they refused to be a secret space for secret desires. They instead embraced a ‘sex positive’ movement.” — Huffington Post, 2011.
Pleasure Chest’s bold embrace of sexuality, particularly alternative sexualities, as a healthy part of life has garnered loyal fans along the way such as Joan Jett, who has been quoted saying she bought her leather ringed belt from the Pleasure Chest’s Los Angeles store, and gave it to Sid Vicious. The belt can be seen in many photos of them from the ‘70s. Pleasure Chest even inspired Queen, whose 1978 song “Let Me Entertain You” contains the lyrics:
If you wanna see some action
We get nothing but the best
The S & M attraction
We got the Pleasure Chest
From the ‘70s on, the Pleasure Chest has been at the center of our culture’s ongoing sexual revolution. Just as “Deep Throat” made its mark on the world of porn, the Pleasure Chest opened its first location. As the celebrations of sexual freedom of the 70s were tempered by the brutal reality of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, Pleasure Chest faced its own heartbreak at losing many of its leaders to the disease. By the ‘90s, Pleasure Chest had become the go-to Hollywood spot for all things fetish, such as when “Pulp Fiction” designers were looking to dress the famous Gimp character and rented the costume from the Pleasure Chest. In the early 2000s when “Sex in the City” took the world by storm, no other store would do for their famous rabbit vibrator episode.
Today, mainstream icons such as Gwyneth Paltrow, the Kardashians, Queen Latifah, Victoria Beckham and Halle Berry all proudly identify as Pleasure Chest customers. At its founding, Pleasure Chest’s assertion that everyone had the right to pursue sexual fulfillment was radical. Forty-five years later embracing sexuality is practically analogous to embracing a healthy lifestyle, or as Halle Berry herself said, “make regular visits to the Pleasure Chest! You can’t forget your sexuality. You can still embrace your body by going to the gym or [going to] The Pleasure Chest.”
For nearly five decades Pleasure Chest has continued to embrace sexuality in all it forms and has positioned inclusivity at the heart of all business decisions — from hiring practices and product selection to community engagement and design As a result, the shopping experience continues to have extensive appeal. Pleasure Chest’s roots in the gay community have held even while also creating a safe space for straight couples to explore. Both the convenience-minded consumer, who can enjoy the ease of stocking a friend’s bachelorette party while upgrading their pleasure collection to the newest toy in one stop, and the luxury shopper, who is looking to indulge in one-of-a-kind pleasure objects, share a love for the Pleasure Chest. As the Wall Street Journal wrote in 2014 after the opening of Pleasure Chest’s Upper Eastside location:
“The chic 6,000-square-foot outpost, now Manhattan’s largest erotic boutique, is titillating a traditionally vanilla neighborhood […] The timing may finally be right to open this Sephora of sex toys a stone’s throw from Bloomingdale’s. Between the boom of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and vibrators on sale at Duane Reade and at mall gadget chain Brookstone, sex is selling more than ever.
Even those seeking to simply upgrade their pleasure IQ can partake in Pleasure Chest’s free, weekly sex education program, PleasurEd, which also happens to offer the most range of topics of any pleasure-based education program. Since 2008, PleasurEd has offered nearly 1,500 free classes on topics ranging from oral sex tips and tricks to bondage as meditation and queering your sex to more than 30,000 attendees and has trained 60 Pleasure Chest educators. By marrying a vibrant legacy, a mission of inclusivity and an unmatched adaptability to the growing and changing pleasure market, Pleasure Chest has persisted as the oldest sex-positive retailer in the country. With five locations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and a new e-commerce platform launching in 2017, Pleasure Chest is not only legendary after 45 years but also still evolving.