Photos by Angela Hart
Nenna Joiner was born and raised underneath the bright lights of Las Vegas, Nevada.
She refers to the famous strip as “downtown” naturally. Growing up under the luminous, sultry marquee that Vegas forms over the desert left a mark on the 35-year-old Oakland resident.
“Vegas is sex,” she said. “But I didn’t see anyone that looks like me growing up.”
Today, Joiner is working with the city of Oakland, California, to open up a sex parlor just south of the old Fox Theater on Telegraph Avenue downtown — a move that supporters say will dramatically shift the East Bay’s adult entertainment industry and attract business to the growing number of vacant storefronts downtown.
Joiner’s shop, dubbed Feelmore, aims to bring greater visibility and sexual empowerment to all people of color — both women and men — who she says have been largely ignored by the market.
“Traditionally, adult entertainment has been dominated by white males,” Joiner said. “You walk into a sex shop and you can look at the packaging and see who controls the market, white men.”
Taking a note from sexual freedom trailblazer Joani Blank, who opened up the first Good Vibrations store in San Francisco in 1977, Joiner said Feelmore would not only offer sex toys and videos, but magazines, books and classes on safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
“I called up one place in Swan’s Market because I saw there was a lot of vacancies, and the person on the other end of the phone was Joani Blank,” Joiner said. “‘Do you know who I am,’ she said to me on the phone. ‘I started Good Vibrations.’”
Since that phone call, Blank has been a mentor for Joiner, offering up advice and support on her business strategy and garnering public support for sex shops – a business that both acknowledge has strong opposition.
“I’m excited that Nenna’s pursuing a store that caters to people of color,” Blank said. “This is something I haven’t seen before and I’m eager to see it. There’s no doubt that some of the things that she’s coming up against are some of the same things I encountered in my beginning.”
Though Joiner has no doubt taken cues from Blank’s Good Vibrations in the way of female empowerment and sexual expression, she differs in that she departs from focusing solely on the feminist movement.
“I want men to feel empowered to come in and shop for their wives or come in and shop for themselves and carry out the bag with some kind of pride, just like women do,” Joiner said. “I believe Feelmore is going to be one of those stores that helps change that mold for both men and women.”
On a recent day, Joiner sat atop a stool outside her future shop on the corner of 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue and petitioned passers-by for their opinion of a sex store in the neighborhood. Inside, old mannequin heads left from the wig store that was once there – Wigs by Tiffany – littered the floor. Paint peeled from the walls; cardboard boxes were strewn about.
Oakland resident Keba Konte, 44, passed by the store outside.
“What’s this all about,” he said.
Joiner explained her vision.
“I’ve been walking these streets and just talking to people and checking out the neighborhood. This would be a good store down here,” she said.
“I’d support it,” Konte said. “It’s not seedy and it’s not like it’s some peep show.”
Situated only a few blocks from Oaksterdam University – the country’s first cannabis college – business leaders say Feelmore has the potential to bring more traffic to the Central Business District and perhaps draw more business to the vacant storefronts that are prevalent in the area.
“There’s nothing downtown Oakland right now,” said Fred Brown, who owns Rocsil’s Shoe Company at 1701 Telegraph, right next door to Feelmore. “Business downtown has been slowly deteriorating over the past 20 years.”
Brown also is Joiner’s landlord.
“I think Feelmore will thrive, it seems like a viable operation,” Brown said. “Oaksterdam is down here, but other than that, there’s nothing.”
Joiner has worked downtown Oakland for the past 11 years, first at Clorox Bleach, then at Chevron Federal Credit Union. “I’ve seen an obvious gap in the market,” she said.
When asked, Joe Haraburda, president and CEO of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, would only comment on the general need for more business.
“All up and down California’s coast, from Mendocino to Monterrey, business is suffering,” he said. “It’s simply a matter of people are not spending as much.
“It’s essential that we work together, the chamber and the city, to create an environment that’s friendly to new business,” Haraburda added. “We need business; we need the jobs and we need the tax revenue.”
Also following in the footsteps of Blank, Joiner is a trained sex educator. She trained at San Francisco Sex Information — an organization that trains people to become sex educators and operates a free information and referral switchboard.
Joiner also has volunteered at the Citadel, a sex club in San Francisco. She has produced her own films and shot erotic photography of persons of color.
“I have a lot of people down here that are rooting for me because they know me,” Joiner said. “People understand that we need to be training our eyes and making sure we have images out there that support people of color.”
Currently, Joiner is in the process of securing her permits with the city’s planning department. The area is zoned as a business and pedestrian zone, according to Joann Pavlinec, a planner with the city of Oakland.
With a change in ownership being granted by the city, Feelmore is expected to open this December.
“Sex should be out in the open,” Joiner said. “And once it’s out in the open, I think the barriers can actually drop and there can be a safe and positive dialogue.
“We don’t have to move to an alley; we can move out of this hidden space where sex shops are seen as seedy.”
Despite her success with Good Vibrations, Blank has one piece of advice for Joiner: “Don’t quit your day job, this is a risky business.”
“I think Feelmore can change the idea of sexual repression in the same way that Good Vibrations did,” Blank said. “Positive sex has been really contagious over the last 40 years.”