Kink’s Cornerstone: Stockroom’s 25th Anniversary

Alex Henderson

2013 marked the 25th anniversary of The Stockroom, which has come a long way since its humble beginnings back in 1988. In the early years, the Los Angeles-based company was a mom-and-pop operation with a small but enthusiastic following in the BDSM underground. But Joel Tucker’s company has grown considerably since then, and these days, The Stockroom is one of the top providers of high-quality bondage toys and fetish attire. Whether it’s whips, paddles, handcuffs, nipple clamps, ballgags and penis-gags or corsets and leather masks, caters to a sizeable clientele that includes an abundance of professional dominatrices, fetish models and creators of BDSM erotica. And The Stockroom recently celebrated that 25th anniversary with a big New Year’s Eve gathering in Hollywood.

Tucker was still in college when he founded Stockroom, and back then, he had no idea that the company would eventually have around 50 employees. “I think if you took snapshots of Stockroom every three years over its whole history, it would look like eight different companies over that span of time,” Tucker explained. “It started from nothing other than one energetic, idealistic, adventurous and entrepreneurial college kid who also happened to be kinky, sex-obsessed and living on a budget. When I went looking for some basic kink/bondage gear, most of what I saw on the market was either prohibitively expensive or of disappointingly low quality — and sometimes, both. So I started making my own gear. I designed the first products, cut the first leather strap, and set the first rivet. My first catalog was produced on a campus photocopier, with products modeled and photographed by friends in the local — and rather tiny and tight-knit — BDSM community, and descriptions I wrote on the college mainframe computer to be printed out on an old dot-matrix printer.”

Often, some of the first questions would be ‘Are you all Satan worshippers?’ or “Do you have sex with animals?’ or other questions that indicated higher levels of fear and judgment and fairly poor comprehension of our presentation. —Joel Tucker

Two important developments that have greatly contributed to The Stockroom’s growth and expansion are the Internet explosion and a much greater public awareness of BDSM. In the late 1980s, things were considerably different technologically — and BDSM was a lot more underground than it is now. It wasn’t until the 1990s that mainstream pop culture became seriously deluged with BDSM, which was great for The Stockroom.

“Extending into the late 1980s, there was still plenty of phobia and misunderstanding toward BDSM,” Tucker recalled. “At that time, I was participating in panel discussions for human sexuality classes on the topic — and after giving a long talk about how kinky sex could be safe, sane, and consensual, we would open up the discussions to questions from the class. Often, some of the first questions would be ‘Are you all Satan worshippers?’ or “Do you have sex with animals?’ or other questions that indicated higher levels of fear and judgment and fairly poor comprehension of our presentation.”

Tucker continued, “I recall the publication of Madonna’s Sex book in the early 1990s as a minor cultural watershed for kinky people, and that was a precursor of other such phenomena to come — including the more recent 50 Shades of Grey fever that peaked in 2012 — and provided The Stockroom and other kink-oriented companies with a nice spike in sales followed by a subsequent spike in new competitors and copycats, of course.”

Tucker points out that The Stockroom was an early user of Internet technology and was promoting e-commerce before that term even came into existence. “Internet sales have been the largest segment of our business from 1990 until today,” Tucker notes. “Oddly, that not only makes Stockroom the oldest online sex toy company by several years, but also, pretty much the oldest e-commerce company of any kind that I know of. In the early ‘90s, if I told someone the Internet was our biggest market, usually the next question was, ‘What’s the Internet?’ Household names like Amazon and eBay didn’t come along until several years later, and to me, even Google — the 900-pound gorilla of the Internet — still seems pretty new. Unlike the Internet giants of today, The Stockroom never had an IPO, infusions of venture capital or even loans or much of a credit line to speak of. Instead, it financed its steady growth using a quaint, old-fashioned capital source known as ‘retained earnings,’ — i.e., profitable operations.”

Tucker added: “Starting around 1995, the Internet began to explode — and The Stockroom took off with it, doubling sales every year for a few years.”

Stockroom has long enjoyed a strong following in the fetish fashion world, and over the years, Tucker has seen latex fashions become more and more popular. “Twenty to 25 years ago, latex was a small market compared to leather, vinyl and PVC clothing,” Tucker observed. “The real change has been on the fashion end. What used to be heavy gauge black rubber has evolved into a rainbow of colors and textures that are equal parts fashion and fetish, and have just completely dominated the formal and club wear side of things. I estimate over 75 percent of the fashion items we sell are latex at this time, but we focus more on latex for fashion purposes. When it comes to gear like floggers, restraints and harnesses, leather is the undisputed champion.”

Some long-time participants in the BDSM scene have said that they miss the days when BDSM was more underground. But Tucker has no complaints about BDSM’s ubiquity in pop culture, which he said has been great for business. “Even now, BDSM practices are still sometimes the butt of jokes or an easy way to make someone seem weird or sinister in mainstream culture,” Tucker observes. “But in general, I think people are less threatened, more tolerant, and in many cases, more curious, intrigued and attracted to it. The simple fact of its increasing visibility makes it more likely for people to seek it out and experiment. It also seems more like a permanent fixture of our cultural identity than it did previously. I think exposure promotes understanding, acceptance and openness. But we take it all in stride. We were here before it was cool, and it’s fun to be vindicated now when it’s cooler.”