by Sensuous Sadie
SENSUOUS SADIE: You started The Stockroom when you were in college, selling items through your college e-mail account. What inspired you to sell sex toys? Why not something less risky to your college career?
JOEL: The inspiration came one day in 1988 when I went to a local sex shop here in Los Angeles looking for bondage gear. I just wanted a few items that I could use with my girlfriend -- some wrist and ankle restraints, and maybe a collar. But in those days I was a student living mostly on scholarships and support from my parents. I didn’t have a lot of extra cash. When I learned how expensive this kind of gear could be, I got discouraged. Does a person have to be rich to be into bondage?
“The woman I was seeing at the time had previously taken a leatherworking class, and she still had her box of tools. She suggested that I borrow them and maybe try making some gear myself, and that’s what I did. In a short time this new hobby had become an entrepreneurial project. My mission was to make functional bondage gear available to my friends at a lower price… and also to supply my own gear of course.”
Sadie: At what point did you realize it was more than just a little extra college money?
Joel: “When I started the business it really was just a hobby, and I wasn’t thinking of being a sex toy vendor as a long-term career path. Then, during my senior year in college, I watched all my bohemian friends getting haircuts and suits to go on interviews for jobs in corporate America or for graduate school. At that point, I’d been in school for 16 years, living according to other peoples’ schedules, deadlines, agendas, and ideas about what I should be doing with my life. I was burned out on academia, and doubtful about my ability to function in a standard corporate setting. I decided I really needed to be self-employed. Since I already had a little business started, I decided to just go with that… for a year or two. Now it’s almost 13 years later.”
Sadie: The Stockroom has been selling bondage gear on the internet since before the world wide web even existed. How has your business changed with this huge change on the internet?
Joel: “Well, for a while there, about five whole years in fact, we were the only adult toy company on the internet, and selling online was our little secret. Most people didn’t know what the internet was in those days. Then the whole e-commerce concept hit the mainstream media, and there was a sudden surge of new companies coming online. But we have continued to thrive and grow at a very healthy pace. This is partly because the general population of internet users has grown almost as fast as the number of other sex toy companies on the net. But it’s also because of the way we run our company and the loyalty of our customers. We have always focused on providing excellent value to our clientele, and over the years a lot of trust has built up. They come back, they link to us, and they tell their friends. Old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising actually works very well on the net.”
Sadie: A few years ago you purchased Deadalus Publishing company from author Race Bannon [Readers can read the SCENEprofiles interview with Race on my website]. Considering the present economic climate, why did you decide to go into book publishing?
Joel: “I have known Race since 1988, the same year I started doing leather work. We had always carried all the Daedalus titles in our catalog, and at times we had helped out with getting print runs done for out-of-print titles. When Race decided to retire from the book business, it seemed natural for us to take it over. Everyone knows the book business is pretty tight these days, and I expected that Daedalus Publishing might not be hugely profitable. But we already had most of what was needed in place - a warehouse, a shipping staff, computer and accounting systems, etc. So the initial investment wasn’t as heavy as it would’ve been if we didn’t already have all that going on. Also I felt Daedalus would synergistic with The Stockroom, and it would be good for the community if it were kept alive.”
Sadie: What were the challenges in expanding into such a different field?
Joel: “Marketing to the book industry is a different job from marketing to adult toy purchasers, and we had to learn about that new market. And it turns out the accounting for a traditional book company is quite complex, and the standard contracts with book distributors are pretty funny. Basically, their terms are something like this: ‘We’ll order all the books we think we might ever need, and you ship them to us at your cost. Maybe we’ll make some effort to sell them someday, and maybe not. But if they ever do sell, maybe we’ll let you know, and then 90 days later we might possibly pay you for them. But if we don’t sell them, we’ll just send them back, probably covered with dust and fairly beat up, and we won’t owe you anything. But in any case keep in mind that we’re having a hard time too, so we may go bankrupt at any moment, and if we owe you any money when that happens, you’ll never see it. OK?’
“Needless to say we are reviewing some of those contracts and wondering if there might be less masochistic ways of running a publishing company. I don’t know whether there are or not.
“There’s also the issue of space. When we first acquired Daedalus, we had surplus space in our warehouse. But now things are much tighter. We do relatively small print runs on books, say 5,000 or so. But even that number of books can take up quite a lot of space in an almost-full warehouse.
“But, as I said, there is good synergy between The Stockroom and Daedalus, and it’s good for the community. In the past year we managed to put out four excellent new titles. This week we are also releasing a new edition of Urban Aboriginals, a classic sociological study on the gay leather scene which was originally published in 1984. It has been out of print for over a decade, and although the demand for it might not be strong enough for a larger publisher to reprint it, many people within the community considered it to be a seminal work, and it appears on many reading lists and even some college syllabi. So we wanted to get it back in print again.”
Sadie: I would expect that Deadalus publishing would have a more stable financial grounding than many of the other niche BDSM publishers because in lean times, The Stockroom can cover the bills. Is this true? I have read that many BDSM publishers are pretty much living on the financial edge. What are your thoughts on this?
Joel: “Keeping Daedalus going is something of a labor of love, and Stockroom does subsidize it at times. But we also have the efficiencies of combining the two companies as I mentioned before. And even if the book industry is changing and generally under pressure, it isn’t completely dead and I don’t think it’s going to die in my lifetime. There are still some opportunities out there if we’re prepared to get creative and work a little harder. In any case it’s good for the community, and what’s good for the community is good for The Stockroom and Daedalus.”
Sadie: How long have you been involved in the BDSM scene? How would you describe your commitment to the lifestyle?’
Joel: “BDSM has been a conscious interest for me since I was 11 or 12, and I began exploring it with a partner at 19. By the age of 21 I was involved in a local SM organization (Threshold) and was serving as an officer for that club. Currently I am a board member of the Leather Merchants Association, and we also recently acquired the SandM.com website, which we have re-launched and are developing and maintaining as a community resource. So I remain committed to supporting the BDSM community of which I consider myself to be a part. As far as my own personal play goes, over time I have become more private about it. But that could change in the future. Life happens in phases sometimes.”
Sadie: You are pretty much “out” if you go by your photo being up on the website and all. What was the process of coming out like for you?
Joel: “That was a lot scarier beforehand than afterwards.
“I had my sexual awakening in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when BDSM was really a lot more taboo than it is now. I was secretive about my BDSM interests, and unsure of whether they were really healthy or socially acceptable. Then during my college years, I worked to clarify my personal value system, taking a critical look at the assumptions and prejudices of the culture I’d grown up in. What really made sense to me were basic, simple ideas like equality for everyone, acceptance of diversity, and people being free to do as they pleased as long as they weren’t infringing on anyone else’s rights. Most Americans will agree to those general ideas in theory. But they don’t always reach the same conclusions that I did when applying them to sex. In this case, my conclusion was that BDSM was OK as long as it was between consenting adults who knew what they were getting into and who ultimately cared about one another’s physical and mental safety.”
“I knew other people saw it differently, and there would be a price to pay if I came out of the closet. I thought it might damage my relationships with many if not most of my friends and family. I thought I might lose the respect of my professors, and be excluded from certain jobs or social circles. But it seemed to me that, as with the gay rights movement, some of us needed to come out of the closet, and represent this minority to the world, to show that we weren’t all kidnappers, murderers, rapists, and Satan-worshippers.
“So I took the leap off the cliff, and opened up about it, basically saying ‘This is me, deal with it … if you can.’ And then I had a bit of luck. It seems I’d chosen to come out with my dominant/submissive interests, and start a BDSM-oriented business, right around the time when a sea-change in our culture’s attitude toward the whole leather/fetish/BDSM scene was beginning to take place. Suddenly, kink was starting to bubble up into the mainstream, where instead of being really dark and threatening, it became, at worst, just kind of funny, and at best something rather titillating and intriguing, even cool and -- dare I say it -- popular. At least for a lot of people.
“So it turned out that my business and I got to be on the leading edge of a new trend, and coming out wasn’t such a costly, self-sacrificing maneuver after all. The mainstreaming of kink has not won absolutely everyone over, nor has it eliminated all of the social or economic barriers, but it has made the path a lot easier. And it has been good for business.”
Sadie: What are the most popular items that you sell? What are your favorite items?
“Our 5 most popular items:
5 favorite items:
Sadie: You have some incredibly stunning catalogue models. Are they real scene people, or is it pretty much just a job for them?
Joel: “Over the years, I’d say more than half of our models have been ‘real scene people.’ Then there are those who do it more as just a job, but even those models often comment that they have more fun working with us than they do on most of their jobs, and they seem genuinely eager to work with us again, and usually take at least part of their compensation in the form of product. It makes me smile when these presumably-vanilla women spend their product credits on SM/bondage/leather gear. But it doesn’t surprise me any more at all. As I said, kink is becoming more mainstream and acceptable for many people.”
Sadie: The Stockroom’s website includes an erotic photo gallery as well as a free chat room. Why do you offer these extras when there is so much of this available all over the web?
Joel: “We have always had a lot of artists and creative types in our company, and to us it just seems natural to try to work some beautiful art and other creative content into the website. It doesn’t cost a lot to put it out, and it seems to be quite popular. We haven’t tracked it very closely, but I imagine it does result in more visitors to our online catalog and increased business.”
Sadie: You have an office kitty named Spunky, commenting that “Our vet thought her name was Spanky, which we found very funny, of course.” Is Spunky dominant or submissive?
Joel: “Since you asked, Spunky is very submissive. She is naturally very sweet and friendly and doesn’t like any kind of trouble or confrontation. Before I took her in, she was a stray in my neighborhood for a while. She liked people but was very solitary when it came to other cats. She was always cold, hungry, and sneezing, and I used to put food out for her. Other cats who had homes would come around and she would always defer to them even when they ate her food. Now she lives in our front offices and sleeps most of the time, not bothered by other cats. She is very cooperative and unassuming. If she’s awake, all you have to do is look at her and she will purr. (Seriously.) But she still has that sneeze, which I suspect is related to her chronic kidney/liver damage, probably a result of eating something not-so-healthy when she was living on the street.”
Sadie: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
“If they’ve read this far, I guess I’d like to thank them for showing
that much interest in what I have to say. I also would like to express
my gratitude for the support, encouragement, and positive feedback
we have received over the last 15 years. It turns out that doing
business with both the BDSM community and the online community is
quite pleasant and rewarding. It has been a privilege to engage
with so many intelligent, articulate, creative, and adventurous
Hyperion Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Sensuous Sadie is a BDSM columnist and edits SCENEsubmissions, a free e-newsletter for the New England area and beyond. She is the founder and leader (1999 - 2001) of Rose & Thorn, Vermont's first BDSM group. Comments, compliments and complaints, as well as requests for reprinting can be addressed to her at SensuousSadie@aol.com or visit her website at www.sensuoussadie.com. Sadie believes that the universe is abundant, and that sharing information freely is part of this abundance, so she allows reprints of her writing in most venues.