Rachel Venning (L) and Claire Cavanah (R).
Rachel Venning (L) and Claire Cavanah (R).

The news broke yesterday that Babeland, the online/brick-and-mortar sex toy shop with locations in Seattle and New York City, has been sold to San Francisco's Good Vibrations. Babeland—originally Toys In Babeland—was founded in Seattle by business-not-life-partners Rachel Venning and Claire Cavanah in 1993. Rachel had just graduated from the University of Washington's MBA program, Claire was working in publishing in Seattle, both were lesbians active in the women's movement.

They opened their first store on Pike Street, not far from the Stranger's offices, and it was an instant hit with people who wanted sex toys but didn't want to slink into a dark and dingy porn store with a damp and smelly video arcade/public sex environment at the back. Christine Wenc, one of the Stranger's first editors, reviewed the store when it first opened:

The place was tastefully decorated and roomy, the staff was friendly, helpful, and very knowledgeable. Everywhere were dildos of all shapes and sizes and textures (one very funny one shaped like an ear of corn); dildo harnesses; all kinds of vibrators; butt plugs; little strings of beads to put up your butt and pull out again; bottles of lube; lots of books. I was entranced by all of the nifty gadgets, many of which I'd seen in the Good Vibrations catalogue before. And there was also a little room in the back with a mirror and a comfy chair for testing the products. Everything was laid out for inspection, with power source available if necessary, so you'd know exactly what you were getting. It was great fun.

Babeland was a revolution when it opened and quickly became one of Seattle's sex-positive institutions, along with things like the Center for Sex Positive Culture, SEAF, HUMP!, pride, naked cyclists at the Fremont solstice parade, and the late, great, and much-missed bondage/leather shop SIN, C-SPACE, and the Lusty Lady. So I was delighted to learn, when I spoke to Rachel and Claire by phone and via text yesterday, that Babeland isn't going anywhere. We also talked about why they're selling, their best and worst customers, and what the future holds for them. After the jump...

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First question: Why? Why, Rachel? Why, Claire? WHY?

RACHEL: [Laughs] It’s been 25 years, Dan, and it’s a personal thing for us. We both wanted to have another chapter in our lives. We both wanted to and do something else. We’ve been doing this for a quarter of a century and we both thought, “Maybe this is a good time to make a change.”

CLAIRE: We’re both ready to start the next chapter in our lives. I mean, when we started 25 years ago this was delightfully new, it was an edgy endeavor. To talk about sex toys, to sell sex toys, to learn about sex together as customers and sales people. It became so much more about the business after a while. It was still fun, but it is hard to be in business. We were lucky enough to be able to sell to Good Vibrations, though, which ensures the legacy…

What surprised you most about the sex toy business?

RACHEL: You can’t judge a book by its cover—maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, but that was it.

Can a cliché be a surprise?

RACHEL: In this case, yes! People would come in and look straight and square, and then they would turn out to be really sexually adventurous and experienced and have all kinds of things going in their lives that weren’t signaled by fashion choices or tattoos or bondage pants or anything like that. And sometimes the reverse would happen—people who looked avant garde would come in and they would turn out to have pretty stodgy or even backwards views on sexuality.

Was the store focused on queer women when it opened?

RACHEL: We opened with a focus on women. It wasn’t primary for the queer community—we were for women, straight, gay, bi, whatever. We were coming at from this from a feminist/women’s movement perspective. We felt women should have access to the tools of sexual pleasure and the information they needed to empower themselves around their sexuality. So it was about women and most women are straight. Or a lot of women are straight!

When you opened the store, sex toys weren’t mainstream. Now you can buy them on Amazon and even Walgreens sells vibrators. Do we still need independent sex shops?

RACHEL: You get a lot more selection at one of our stores. Walgreens might have a couple of vibrators for sale—vibrators condom companies have added to their product line to expand their shelf space at places like Walgreens. What you get at a store like ours is a huge selection and the expertise of all the people who work in the store. You need that to help make decisions, to find the things that are right for you and your body. Some vibrators cost $150! You want someone who can help you make sure that’s the right one for you before you spend that kind of money.

CLAIRE: It’s true that vibrators have gotten more and more mainstream over time, which is why you see them for sale in places you didn’t 25 years ago. And there’s definitely an upside to that. We have a much more complete conversation these days about female sexual pleasure. Which is fantastic. Our culture has opened up toward sexual pleasure and it has become a mainstream pursuit.

Everyone who works retail has nightmare stories about terrible customers. So I want to know: Babeland’s worst customer ever?

RACHEL: Our most infamous customer? This would be back a while—it would have to be more than fifteen years ago. Back then we used to have a dressing room and some of the vibrators were plugged in for people to test out in the dressing room. The idea was to “try it on” over you clothes. But we had people going in there and having sex and having orgasms and that wasn’t the point. So I’d say the worst customers were the ones who had no boundaries—the kind of person would go into our dressing room and fuck. They were the worst.

That sounds like what used to go on in old-school sex shops—some sex toys and videos for sale up front, and a “video arcade” in the back where people—men people—went and fucked.

RACHEL: Maybe that’s why it happened back when we first opened. Because that’s what people associated with a store selling sex toys.

CLAIRE: Can I tell you about our best-ever customer. I was giving a tour of the toys to a residence counselor group from NYU. Blah blah blah, yak yak yak. I was giving the spiel I’d given many, many times before. There was one customer in the store, an older woman. When we got to the g-spot toys she couldn’t stay quiet. She politely joined the conversation, and told this group of 18 year olds about what happened to her sexually after her husband died. She had had a loving marriage of 30 years then found herself dating. She found a lover who helped her have her first orgasm, and started ejaculating from sex. After 30 years of marriage! And there she was, shopping for sex toys, just brimming with joy and bearing witness to a group of kids less than half her age. The 18 year olds were riveted, jaws dropped. They got so much more than they had come in for.

The Seattle store isn't closing, is it? And will it still be called Babeland or will Good Vibrations be rebranding the store?

CLAIRE: Seattle is staying open as Babeland.

I was one of your first customers—I feel like Babeland and "Savage Love" got started at roughly the same time, and on the same stretch of Pike Street. You're getting out now. Is it time for me to sell "Savage Love" to "Dear Abby" and be done with it?

RACHEL: I don’t know. If you’re happy, keep doing it. If you’re loving it, keep doing it. But if you’re not happy, Dan, you should move on! Be free! Sell!

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What’s next for you?

RACHEL: I’m at a crossroads. I’m going to take a couple of months to relax. I’m actually on my way to Lake Washington right now!

CLAIRE: I’m open to the universe. Right now I can think of many ways to fill my time, but I’m unsure what the next chapter in my work life will be about.