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Originally published October 20, 2013 at 5:31 AM | Page modified October 21, 2013 at 10:10 AM

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20 years of good vibrations at Babeland

Twenty years ago, Rachel Venning and Clare Cavanah opened Babeland on Capitol Hill. Today, with four locations and $10 million in annual revenue, they talk sex, the city and how their wares went from “marital aids” to “a rite of passage.”

Seattle Times columnist

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"toys in babeland" was a much cooler and clever name for the business. when t... MORE
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One year around the Thanksgiving table, Rachel Venning announced that she was opening a store.

What kind of store? her family asked.

Oh, you know, she said. Something for women. Health-focused. With books ... and vibrators. That sort of thing.

There was a moment of silence before Venning’s grandmother piped up: “Do you mean dildos?”

Twenty years later, Venning still laughs at the memory.

“You can imagine ... with my dad the attorney sitting there ...,” she said.

But even he couldn’t argue the success of Babeland (originally Toys in Babeland), the store that Venning and her business partner, Claire Cavanah, opened on Seattle’s Capitol Hill two decades ago.

In the time since, the partners have opened three more stores in New York City (one in Brooklyn and two in Manhattan), and last year racked up $10 million in sales.

And they have played a part in the country’s sexual evolution from a time when sex toys were thought to belong in the Devil’s Nightstand, to now, when middle-aged women drive in from the suburbs to buy the stuff they read about in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“It used to be if you had an orgasm it was accidental,” explained Cavanah, who now lives in Brooklyn with her partner, Alex, and two children. “Now sex toys are much more mainstream.”

Indeed, Venning said, vibrators are “pretty standard bedroom fare. They used to be ‘marital aids.’ Now it’s a rite of passage for young women to get a vibrator.”

And Babeland seems to be the place to do it.

It has been located on Seattle’s Pike Street since opening — but only after several landlords in other parts of the city refused to rent to Cavanah and Venning.

“They thought it would be something disreputable,” Venning said, something similar to the Champ Arcade, a former “porn shop” with a storefront, but also booths and live dancers in the back.

Babeland isn’t like that, of course. It is decorated like the holiday aisles at Target: full of color and bright graphics, and employees who not only answer questions and make suggestions, but hold classes with names like “Sex After Breast Cancer” and “Naughty Nightcap: Positions of Pleasure.”

It’s a far cry from the time in which Venning and Cavanah came of age; the time of AIDS, when the talk was mostly about how to be safe — not satisfied.

But by the time they opened, in a city that Cavanah called “an incubator of experimentation,” people were ready to hear them talk about sex and buy things to make it better.

“The time was right and the place was right,” Cavanah said. “And we are really lucky.”

The two women met in Seattle in 1989, when Venning — who know lives in Oakland with her partner, Laura, and two children — was attending business school at the University of Washington, and Cavanah was working at Seal Press.

One day, Venning was hanging around at Cavanah’s, “avoiding going to school,” when she picked up a bottle of lube from Cavanah’s bedside table.

“Why do you use this brand?” she asked.

No reason, Cavanah said. She bought it with a gift certificate for a sex store called The Crypt that someone gave her as a joke.

At the time, they had been talking about opening a business together. A coffee shop. A record store. Maybe they would make beer.

But that one little bottle of lube gave them both an idea they couldn’t shake.

Nothing happened until 1992, when Venning spent one quarter at the Cranfield School of Business in England and came back inspired.

She and Cavanah got organized, made a plan, got a space and started ordering stock for their new store.

Cavanah remembered looking through catalogs, thinking, “I can’t do this.”

But she did, and when their first shipment arrived, they took a lot of items out of their packaging.

“The pictures and wording were sexist or gross,” Cavanah remembered.

They would hold things up in the air and ask each other: “What would you pay for this?”

“We had no equation,” Venning said. “It was a different world. Some of that stuff was so bad or carelessly made. And nobody was going to return anything or complain.”

(What is their return policy? “It’s sort of like a restaurant,” Venning said. “You can’t return your dinner if you don’t like it. You just don’t eat there again.”)

Some items they ordered at the start turned out to be best-sellers.

There’s the “Magic Wand,” a large vibrator with two speeds: high and “super high.”

“A timeless classic,” Cavanah called it.

Another vibrator, a two-pronged wonder called “The Rabbit,” is also a staple, thanks to an episode of “Sex and the City” in which the character Charlotte gets one and won’t leave her apartment.

Venning called that “a watershed moment” for Babeland. “Vibrators were on TV, talk shows ...”

Their merchandise has only continued to go mainstream..

The success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” brought Babeland a whole new crop of customers. Crop being the operative word.

“People who have read the book would come in with a list,” Venning said.

It’s a different world now. Not only are the customers of all stripes and unashamed, she said, the items are of better quality and the technology is amazing. Remote controls. Heat.

Even better? Babeland seems to be immune from economic fluctuations.

“When things are bad, people want to hunker down and seek comfort in trying times,” she said. “Like a plate of macaroni and cheese. Comfort food, comfort activities.”

Venning agreed; people may cut back on many things during hard times, but never what Babeland has to offer.

“Who’s going to cut back on orgasms?”

Nicole Brodeur:

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