I drove to the Adult Bookstore outside of town.
|Not the Adult Bookstore, but Jared Souney’s photo of Climax definitely captures the mood and the look of the place...|
The Adult Bookstore deserved those initial caps, too, because this was the early 1980s. In the part of Pennsylvania those cosmopolitan, libertine sophisticates of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia looked down on then as well as now. So back then, at least for us, the Adult Bookstore might as well have been the only one that existed in the entire world.
Everyone knew what and where it was. First, you drove past the mills and then through the woods on that winding county road, which was of course bumpy because the county took care of it. Next, you turned onto that numbered state route, which was in an even worse repair because the state took care of it. Dodge the potholes for a few minutes, though, and there it was. A building like some cross between a house and a shack and a bar you wouldn’t go in even with all of your friends at your back, and sitting all by its lonesome in the center of a gravel parking lot/moat of potential obscenity lawsuits and rebukes of eternal damnation.
Every pubertal child-man I knew dreamed of the moment we could get inside the Adult Bookstore. It was a rite of passage, but one that was also fraught with danger. The Adult Bookstore owner and employees, who were like those dragons on the edge of medieval maps to us, might realize we weren’t really eighteen and throw us out. Even worse, someone might recognize us.
That was a real fear, too. Ours was a small town, even if it did call itself a city. And we had all grown up not just driving past the place, but also gleefully taking part in the Horn Game. That was when some hapless customer was walking into or out of the store as you drove by, and you begged, pleaded, and cajoled whoever happened to be driving at the time to honk the horn. The customer would immediately fear someone he knew had just spotted him. It was especially effective at night, when the poor guy couldn’t see your car and his imagination clearly ran wild. (My boss?! My minister?! My mother-in-law?!) And that brief glimpse of stark terror on his face as you shot past was like catnip to a eight-year-old. Or a ten-year-old. Or a thirteen-year-old
By the time you were fourteen, though, you were thinking about getting inside that place yourself. And starting to fear some other snot-nosed brat would someday do the same to you.
Or, worse, actually recognize you. And tell his parents. Who would then tell your parents.
No one honked when I went inside that first time, thankfully. But I did park around back, out of sight, in case someone passing by might remember my mother’s car.
And the inside? The inside was like reaching the edge of that map where those dragons had been drawn, and realizing that maybe you really should keep a lookout for, well, dragons...
Like I mentioned, this was the early 1980s. The very early 1980s. There were no bright and cheerful Pleasure Chests back then, no friendly and welcoming Good Vibrations. You went through that front door with a rusty spring snapping it back shut (loudly) like something on your Grandpa’s work shed, and you saw that crappy fake-wood paneling your friend’s scary dad had put up in his “rec room,” and you spotted that cashier who reminded you there were parts of Pennsylvania even more rural than where you lived, and you started to rethink the Adult Bookstore.
If not for the whole Rite of Passage aspect, and the utter mockery I would endure from my friends if I came back without a purchase, and the worry that I'd dodged a bullet by not being spotted getting inside but that someone driving past would probably recognizing me as I left, I probably would have bolted. As it was, I stood there, just inside the door, long enough for everyone inside to know full well that I wasn’t really eighteen. And that I obviously had never been inside a place like this before.
The Adult Bookstore didn’t care, though. Or the cheap newsprint swinger’s paper the cashier went back to reading was just more interesting in the end than me. Or at least enough for the cashier to pretend not be watching me.
So I stayed. And I wandered. The video booths called out to me with their low-res early VHS wonders (or maybe it was still actual film then), but the “cleanliness issue” overpowered that particular siren song (which is why I’m wondering if maybe it was still actual film then). I’d been raised by WASPs, after all, so even in the Adult Bookstore, there were standards I simply would not let slide. At least the thick-paged, glossy magazines looked clean, if not sterile, but the naked Swedish blondes didn’t pull my attention like they should have, and like they would have for all of my friends. Back then, vanilla was just a flavor of ice cream to me, but I was already realizing that “normal” sex didn’t have the same appeal for me as, well, other things.
Then I saw the wall of those other things.
An entire fucking wall.
Mistresses. Dominatrices. Men on their knees and in collars. Women bound and gagged. Slaves abused and dominated. Leather. Boots. Leather boots. One cover photo after another, and only partially obscured by the metal magazine holders themselves.
It was like the heavens parted, and the sun shone down on the promised land.
By this point in my life, I already knew that I wasn’t “the norm” sexually. And I was at least aware of most of what I would eventually make my peace with as “kinks,” even if I still fought the idea they were somehow actually “perversions.” And while I knew there were others like me, it had always felt like we were very few and very far between. So few and far between, in fact, that in those pre-Internet days, we would probably never meet as friends who could tell each other we each weren’t as weird as we thought, and that I would probably never find one of the exceedingly rare women who might actually be into this. We were needles in an America-wide haystack. But the wall changed all that.
Because it was an entire fucking wall.
The creepy cashier pretending not to be watching me over top of that swinger's paper no longer creeped me out after that. Because even at that age, I knew enough about writing and publishing to know that nobody published an entire fucking wall of these magazines without a market. And even if that market were small by mainstream standards, it was a lot bigger than I’d been imagining up to that point. I felt a part of something larger, standing there, even if I didn’t know exactly what that might be. But it didn’t matter. Because while I still might be just as alone in these, ah, "proclivities" in my hometown as I’d thought, I wasn’t quite as alone in them overall as I’d been before I walked through that ratty door with its rusty spring.
I bought a Swedish nudes magazine to show my friends, but I also bought three BDSM magazines that day. I still remember some of those photos vividly, too. The cashier did get a bit creepier with that knowing look as he rang up my change, and I started worrying that maybe he’d recognized me, and I half-ran out the door and around back to the car and then peeled out, spraying gravel as I pulled onto the state route as fast as I could, to allow the least possible chance of someone seeing where my mother’s sensible compact car was pulling out from.
Then I had to figure out how to hide those magazines at home from my mother, with her cleaning hands and prying eyes.
Not to mention all the others I bought during future trips to the Adult Bookstore. Because I had found “my people,” even if they were just in expensive, four-color pages only semi-decently bound together.
The creepy cashier even turned out to be a decent sort of guy, too, later on. And he never once asked if I was really eighteen.