Friday, January 30, 2009
His ManKind Video Isn’t Your Average Adult Store
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The location at 3425 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest (the former headquarters of Stepping Stone) isn’t exactly off the beaten path — it’s across the street from the Loft bar and within a block of the Seniors Active in a Gay Environment (SAGE) headquarters — but though it’s just 4 1/2 blocks south of University Avenue it almost seems like it’s in another world. That’s part of what gives ManKind Video, the adult store and boutique that opened there last May, its unique charm. Instead of a single level of barely differentiated space, it’s a three-story house with discernibly different merchandise on each of the two currently occupied floors — they’re planning to develop the third floor later — and the brightly painted walls and high, airy ceilings give it a homier, more welcoming “feel” than the cookie-cutter pornomats consumers of sexual merchandise are all too used to.
ManKind Video’s name is deceptive — it’s a corporate title but they do a lot more than rent and sell DVD’s (mainstream and non-porn Queer cinema as well as porn). They’ve got a wide selection of magazines, toys and clothes — mostly T-shirts with catchy, vaguely sexual slogans and insignia — and they’re planning to branch out into fetish wear and other specialties. The manager is Jesse Greika, an attractive, personable young man with extensive experience in customer service as well as adult merchandising. Zenger’s sat with him one recent afternoon and discussed his background, his plans for the store and his experiences as a relative newcomer to San Diego’s Queer and fetish communities.
Zenger’s: Just tell me a little about yourself and how you got into this business.
Jesse Greika: I was born in Rockville, Connecticut. I grew up in Coventry, a very conservative small town, cow town if you will, and always knew I was Gay. So, of course, experimentation and curiosity ran rampant. I would sneak out of my house when I was young and sneak out to Hartford with my friends and go to the Gay bars, because I had a fake I.D. Oh God, I was a little whore, I guess, for lack of a better terminology. And that set me on my crusade to be me.
I finished high school in Connecticut and went to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, where I was a fashion design major with a marketing/merchandising minor. I didn’t finish school there. School has never been really my thing. I’m a hands-on kind of a learner. So I left Johnson and Wales and spent a summer on Nantucket Island. Winter was coming around, so my friends on Nantucket Island were like, “Let’s do Miami for the winter.” I was a waiter on Nantucket, so I wasn’t really utilizing anything I’d learned in school and was sick of the cold, and decided to go and check out Florida.
I went to Florida and got into the travel industry, so that’s when I started to perfect my customer-service abilities. They really instill that the customer is always right, and teach you how to deal with them. I worked for Atlantis in the Bahamas for about four years and then moved to Fort Lauderdale, got into performing as a drag-queen entertainer for about 14 years. I wanted to do both a daytime job and a nighttime job to make the most of my time and make more money, so I got a part-time job at a place called the Pride Factory in Fort Lauderdale and worked there for about seven years, became an assistant manager over that time.
I left there briefly to go try new avenues. I opened an outlet of Larry Flynt’s Hustler of Hollywood in Fort Lauderdale. I was an assistant manager there and worked there for about three years. I got over the whole corporate design. It just wasn’t working with me. I worked with Fetish Factory, which was more of a straight-oriented adult community business. We used to have fetish parties once a month. You bought your tickets at the store, you bought your outfit for the fetish party at the store, and they had a really good system going there.
Basically, I wanted to take the three experiences — Fetish Factory, Hustler and Pride Factory — and roll them into one and come up with my own business plan, an upscale versioin of Hustler of Hollywood geared towards the Gay community. Since I do drag, more in my spare time now, I definitely have a soft spot for the Transgender community. I believe that there’s a lot of young Transgender individuals out there that just have no guidance. Many are forced into prostitution and into doing things the wrong way. Ideally, in the long run I would like to have groups, meetings, in regards to helping the Transgender community.
Zenger’s: So how did you end up in San Diego?
Greika: Helix Studios is my parent company, my financial backer. I’ve worked for Keith Miller, the owner of Helix Studios, for about seven or eight years. Back in Florida he used to own nightclubs, and I was an entertainer in his nightclubs from time to time. He started his adult business about five or six years ago, and basically all of my friends ended up working for him. They moved their company out to the West Coast about three years ago, and their online business ManKind Video was doing well. They decided to expand to a brick-and-mortar location, and with my experience and my background, felt that I would be the perfect person to spearhead the venture.
Zenger’s: What makes this store different from any of the other adult businesses in San Diego?
Greika: I feel it’s a level of customer service and product knowledge. I like to think of all of my employees, along with myself, as sexperts. When I go into other places, I don’t necessarily feel welcomed. When a customer comes through my doors, I want to make sure that they’re comfortable. I like to determine what their needs are, without being too pushy. I don’t want to be a shark, if you will. I’m here to help.
There are a lot of questions people have with regards to adult products, and a lot of times they’re embarrassed to ask them. You’ve got someone who’s bottoming for the first time, and they don’t know what kind of toy to use, what kind of lubrication to use, what’s considered safe play, what is not. There are a lot of factors, and we’re here to let them know.
Zenger’s: You said you’re particularly reaching out to the Gay community. Is that one of the reasons you happened to pick this location, or did it just happen to be available?
Greika: I was looking on University Avenue, to be right in the thick of things, but they wouldn’t allow my concept. I searched for four months, and every single place shot me down as soon as they heard I would have adult merchandise. I don’t know whether it was the adult concept that was driving them off, or the adult Gay concept. But, either way, nobody would let me in.
This particular address was on Craigslist. There were no pictures, no nothing, so I had it on the back burner. Then I got a phone call out of the blue from the gentleman who was showing the property, I decided to take a look, and when I saw the place I fell in love with it. I think it’s got a lot of character and charm. It’s an old house. It’s got a lot of history. It used to be Stepping Stone. If anything, it offers something extra. If you want to come into an adult store, and don’t want to feel seedy with the back rooms and the booths and everything, this is the perfect place. And it’s a little bit off the beaten trail, so you can walk in and out and it can be very discreet. Not everybody’s watching you.
Zenger’s: Of course, off the beaten path also means that much harder to promote it and get people to find it.
Greika: Yeah, I would say so. I kind of wanted it to be a building thing, though. I didn’t necessarily want to come on strong and overwhelm the community. We have lots of ads, but I wouldn’t say a strong amount of our clientele is coming in because they saw an ad. It’s more, “Oh a friend came in, and I heard from them,” which I think that is a stronger foundation for your business. We’re only as good as what the last customer that walked out the door is, and as long as they had a good experience and you know they’re going to tell their friends, and they’re going to tell their friends, we just hope it spreads. And so far, so good.
Zenger’s: When did you open?
Greika: We opened May 7. It started when we moved into the building on April 15. All the renovations in here have been by hand, by myself and friends. So it’s definitely a labor of love, and it’s still a work in progress. We’re a grower, not a shower.
Zenger’s: How’s the business been doing so far? Has it lived up to your projections?
Greika: It’s steadily growing. I had a business plan based on my experience in Fort Lauderdale, of course, because that’s all I knew of and I didn’t know San Diego yet. So it’s pulling through. It holds its own. One of the good things about this particular location is I was able to get triple the amount of space for half the amount of rent, so in a way it evens out. I probably would have more business if I was on University, but I don’t necessarily know that it would have been what I was looking for, customer-wise. Also, I think that on University Avenue you’d probably have more people just walking through, but here, they’re coming here for a purpose.
There’s also a large Gay community in Banker’s Hill and this area that don’t have the outlet. Before we opened, they had to drive all the way to 30th, where the Crypt is. Many of my customers are like, “Oh, we’re so glad that we have somebody close to us, where I can go and get my porn at, and oh, you have so much else.” So I’m glad at the way it happened.
Originally we were just going to be strictly adult, but this city wouldn’t allow that. When we first moved in, they said they would, but then it became a grey area and we had to change around our whole merchandise plan, product plan. Now we have more variety, so I think all in all it’s a good thing.
Zenger’s: Yeah, you’ve mentioned the city several times, and I’ve heard a lot of the horror stories over the years of the hoops San Diego puts adult business owners through. How have you been able to deal with it?
Greika: It’s been tedious but not necessarily difficult. The city has been very accommodating. They didn’t come in here trying to push us out, by any means. They were here for us, but also obviously had to uphold the regulations and the codes of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, with the product that we had it was a grey area. One city commissioner says one thing, another says another thing, and that’s basically what they said to me.
The gentleman that came in really helped me out. He helped me to understand the laws here better — which are very similar to Fort Lauderdale, with a couple of differences. And here, all the other places are grandfathered in, so they can be almost anywhere, whereas I have to be a little more selective.
Zenger’s: I noticed that, among the banners outside, you’re flying the BDSM flag. Are you doing a special outreach to the Leather community?
Greika: Not as of yet. We originally wanted to do, like Fetish 101, bondage classes and so forth. But after Pride I came to the conclusion that the Leather community and the Gay and Lesbian community don’t necessarily mesh really well here. I felt a definite separation between the two, whereas in Fort Lauderdale, you know, the Leather guys and the Gay community get along better.
Zenger’s: I wanted to ask about the non-adult merchandise which you’re carrying.
Greika: Once I bring the adult to the third floor, I really want to expand the first and second floors. I really like the whole eclectic boutique kind of feel. I really would like to promote local artists. One of my employees, Steven — you know Steven, he’s working downstairs now — he’s the artist who makes all the glasswork that we have downstairs.
I want stuff that is colorful, unique. I love rainbows. At the same time, I don’t want too much rainbow. It’s all just a growing thing. I found that there are a lot of guys into fetish here, so I really want to expand my fetish department. Lots of guys specifically ask for CB 6000’s, or certain toys that you can’t find anywhere else, so I would really like to expand that.
Zenger’s: O.K. You’ve piqued my curiosity. What’s a CB 6000?
Greika: It’s a cock-and-ball torture device, like a chastity device. Basically, it’s a Plexiglas-like plastic cup that goes over your cock, and there’s a locking mechanism on it for your partner to hold the key, so when he’s gone or whatever, it’s just like a chastity device.
I love the whole fetish thing. I love latex. Leather I like, latex I love. I just can’t get enough of that stuff. But that’s nowhere here in San Diego. I don’t even know if I’ll ever be able to get into that. We do carry some rubber harnesses and stuff like that from Nancy Pig, but nowhere near the amount I’d like to have. I’m still meeting people and learning.
I eventually would love to start events. I’ve been to a few of the fetish parties around town here, and I understand what it takes to promote an event, so no disrespect to the events that are going on, but that would never fly in Fort Lauderdale. I believe a fetish event should have a strict dress code enforced, and I think the hard-core fetish community really only wants to go to a place that is hosting other people who are as serious as they are.
I don’t like to go to a fetish party where I’ve spent the money and my time in getting my outfit down, and I walk in and see guys in jeans. I don’t find that to be a fetish. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt is not a fetish. So I think that the whole fetish needs to be re-evaluated and re-invented in San Diego. Maybe that will be the new slogan — “Are you real fetish?”
Zenger’s: So what are you hoping for the future?
Greika: I’m hoping to be successful. I want everybody to know the name. I want to provide a good product with the knowledge to go along with it. I want people to have more fun, to be a little more relaxed with their sexuality. I feel San Diego is a little uptight, and relax — it’s just sex. Everybody has it. Just understand what your likes and dislikes are, and respect the dislikes and likes of others, and we’ll all get along just fine.