How to Run a Sex Shop During a Pandemic

Nenna Joiner Profile

Nenna Joiner’s Feelmore is an Oakland institution—a sex shop conceived, owned, and operated by a Black female entrepreneur since 2011. But COVID-19 has radically reshaped Joiner’s work on multiple levels, both as the founder of a brick-and-mortar shop when the economy is cratering and as a longtime advocate for sexual pleasure at a time when many of her clients face economic uncertainty and endless stress. Here, they share their unique experience working at the intersection of sex, money, and an earth-rattling pandemic—and share their thoughts on how COVID-19 is propelling a new generation of Black and brown entrepreneurs into action.

You have a bird’s-eye view of sexuality in your community. How’s everybody doing?
It’s hard. But the fun part is we’re all there. Everybody’s having an issue with jobs.

Are you getting many first-time clients?
We’re seeing more women and men saying, “Hey, I haven’t done this before”—for example, full-on masturbation with a Unit [sex toy]. Maybe they’ve done it with their hand, but not with a Unit. We tell them, “Hey, it’s cool, it’s chill. Don’t worry about it. You’re doing a good thing.” You know what I mean? You’re doing a service for yourself.

Budget is a concern for many people right now—so we’re making sure that we’re bringing in products across price ranges, so people don’t feel sticker-shock. Conversations right now are really real—like, “I’ve got to pay my bills.” We make sure that they understand what’s important, no matter their budget and what it means for their health if they don’t have things they need, like lube or condoms.

One woman just came in, and she was like, ‘I thought this COVID stuff was going to be over by now—I just need to take care of my own self.’

How does that change what people buy?
One woman just came in, and she was like, “I thought this COVID stuff was going to be over by now—I just need to take care of my own self.” And I was like, “Well, what’s your budget?” She was like, “30-something bucks.” So we got her something for 30-something bucks. Now she can go out of here with confidence, and she doesn’t have to deal with anyone. She can still deal with someone on a mental level—on the phone or talking to them, or even six feet away, just looking at them—while not being engaged sexually in a way that could compromise her health.

What product did she get?
The Tiny Teaser.

So the challenge is how to be sexually fulfilled, maybe without actually touching other people—and also on a budget because everything is so precarious. That is just super complicated.
It’s very complicated. And on top of that, maybe you have very basic healthcare. Shady healthcare, possibly. You can’t get sick. How will you be able to see a doctor? Who’s going to be by your side if you’re in the hospital?

What are your shoppers’ priorities right now?
The first is, does it cost what I need it to cost? And then if it’s rechargeable. If it’s rechargeable, she doesn’t have to go back outside to buy more batteries. Some of the things that we carried when we first started came with watch batteries. We don’t carry many things like that now, because you can’t find watch batteries after Radio Shack shut down—you’re not going to find them at the corner store.

What else is selling well?
Lingerie is selling big-time, because now you have to entertain. You have to become the movie.

That’s funny because my vision of this cultural moment is that people are just sitting around in leggings all the time and don’t have the energy for anything.
It’s like, “Okay, well, let’s throw on some lingerie and see what happens.”

What are people less interested in now?
I’ve had fewer conversations around poly right now.

I know that you first came to the Bay Area in the ’90s to study—and that some of your work was motivated by visiting the Good Vibrations in Berkeley and noticing that all of the images of the women in the store were white.
Everyone in my household was talking about diversity. I was seeing so many different types of people, so that when I went into a space that was very homogeneous, I was like, “Wow, why is this?” I wanted to see a space that represented what I saw every day in my household.

Your next step after that experience was selling sex toys out of your car. How did you get that job done?
When you’re starting a business, you start with what you have, and I had a car. It was easy to start that way.

What sort of reactions did you get?
It wasn’t so much about the reactions—it was about me, getting my bearings, and really believing in what I was doing. I think a lot of people start out doing something, but embarrassment or the fear can push them back to a place of, “This isn’t for me” or “They don’t like me.” I used that for motivation. The basic thing was, Don’t look down. Keep going, keep going, keep going. I’d go around to the BART stations and the bars, places like that. Some people I knew, and some people I didn’t, but they were like, “Oh, this is cool.” Just cool—not buying, but that it was cool, that I was actually going to stand outside and do this. That’s bold. I never got too far ahead of myself—I just worked to embrace every moment as a good moment.

You have to have a certain level of faith—that faith and the small parables in the Bible actually got me through things.

What inspired you to keep going? Other entrepreneurs? Public figures? God?
Yeah, definitely the Bible. I mean, no one grows up saying, “Hey, I want to sell dildos for a living—12-inch ones at that.” But you have to have a certain level of faith—that faith and the small parables in the Bible actually got me through things. David didn’t have anything. John, the baker, was in jail and was like, “Don’t forget about me when you get out of this joint. Tell them about me.” You know what I mean? And then several years later, he gets out and he’s famous, so to speak. Just being a good steward over the small things. It just gave me hope.

You know, after all this, I’m wondering why you chose to start a sex shop?
I don’t know. I have no idea!

I’m telling you—I’m serious. I wanted something that kept me up. I wanted something that brought me a level of fun, and also continued to help transform who I was. It’s a layered onion, every day, every moment, every year I’m still doing this brings about more reasons why. But for sure healing my own wounds.

I’ve seen you speak in local government forums. Would you ever run for public office?
No, I ain’t going into public office. I can’t have a stripper pole in there.

Sure you could! Why not?
I want to have fun. You know what I mean? I just want to have fun in life. If this gives me a level of advocacy where I can do the political touches—but still also do the community-based work and still be me in the middle of it—then I want to be right there. I don’t want to have to go into an office if it takes away from who I am. You know what I’m saying? I’d rather have a TV show than be in politics.

So where do you feel like your advocacy really lies? Is it with building a community of like-minded entrepreneurs? Is it in sexual pleasure and sexual wellness?
I think at one time it was around sexual pleasure, sexual awareness. Just like with everything, it transitions. Can I say right now that it’s about sexual pleasure? No. It’s around ownership and opportunity for brown business owners—to see the advantage of working for themselves.

As a woman, I want to make sure that I’m staying competitive—and part of that is doing my best not to stay in places that don’t appreciate me.

We’re going to get a lot of entrepreneurs out of what COVID has created. We’re about to see the next wave of entrepreneurs come in and start working for themselves. The feeling you get from working for yourself—the check you get from working for yourself—is so much greater than going to work for someone else, who can fire you at any moment. [Corporations] take stock options and PPP and loan money—and they still fire you. What good is that?

As a woman, I want to make sure that I’m staying competitive—and part of that is doing my best not to stay in places that don’t appreciate me. I don’t want to work in corporate America [as I did], as an info security engineer—I don’t want to be in a position where you can get laid off and they’ll just go and get cheaper labor. Younger labor is cheaper. You know?
So what you need is to make your own market. And so, to your point—what is my advocacy? It was sexual pleasure. If I want to stay there, I can—or do I move markets?

It sounds like you’re moving markets—so what does that look like?
I’m going to be a manufacturer. I’m also going to be a distributor. I’m looking at those opportunities and changing my knowledge base to stay competitive. If we stay with COVID for a while, people aren’t going to open physical stores as much. But they’re still going to need the product—so now I have to transition to the product-based side.

Going from retailing to manufacturing—that’s pretty mega.
I want to stay mega. Coming in [the shop] is beautiful—seeing people is beautiful—but then you also have to develop new skills. It’s not much of a push for me to move into manufacturing because I already have a knowledge base—I manufactured a vibrator, and we sold out of it. So I’m taking my knowledge base and just revolving it. That could be me taking some Mandarin classes in preparation for having better relationships [with manufacturers], even online. I’m learning how to create something from what I have right now, from right where I am.

Diana Ostrom

Diana Ostrom writes one novel every eight to 12 years and one newsletter every week (about Paris, travel, and more), which you can find here.

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