Typical, given that we're talking memories, that I can't actually remember the very first day I opened the doors of Sh!
I can remember finding the shop in a then very run-down, unheard of area of London called Hoxton and the guy, dying of AIDS in 1992, who put me on to it. I can remember too, painting the walls strawberry pink and constructing very shaky 'display' tables from metal legs & bits of wood found round the back of B&Q. Handing over £80 to Alan, the landlord, who came round weekly in his Ferrari to collect his rent, in cash, is comically clear. The trawl around some very shady sex toy wholesalers searching for toys that weren’t 12 inches long, bright orange and bulging with veins remains horribly vivid…
But the actual day, April 1st 1992; the first day of trading for Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium is a total blank. Nor are their any photos to remind me. There was no launch, no party, I don’t think a bottle was even cracked open to mark the start of this little shop whose destiny was to change the face of the British sex industry forever.
I had an empty video box for a till, tea & coffee for the customers, and a small and select range of erotic playthings which refused to stay put on the wobbly shop-fittings. Whilst Sh! was naturally the first boutique erotic shop, the diminutive range actually had nothing to do with my offering only the most sophisticated toys; the days of quality, stylish sex toys being at least 4 plus years off. Sh! was established on £700 and once the paint & the rent was paid, there wasn’t a lot left to stock a whole shop. What’s more, the vast majority of toys in ’92 were from either the phallic or the blow-up school of sex toy design, which neither addressed nor appealed to womens’ sexuality.
The fixtures may have been unsteady, but from day one, the ethos was strong. Sh! was sex shop for women, the only one of its kind in the UK. A shopping trip a couple of months beforehand had proved to be an alienating and ultimately frustrating experience for myself & a friend; she searching for a strap-on and me quite fancying a vibe.
We were young modern women. Our mothers had come of age in the 60’s; the freedom that feminism & contraception had given them, had rubbed off on us. Icebergs were crashing through our telly in the form of Government-backed adverts designed shake us into taking charge of our own sexual health and avoid a scary new virus that could kill through sex. Condom application lessons were on daytime TV. The catwalk was awash with fetish and the dance floor with Ecstasy.
We felt it was our birthright to go buy some sex toys and yet the reality was grubby, exploitative and hugely male-orientated. The toys, all “realistic”, were displayed behind glass which was often murky with dust and fingerprints.The shops were dark, filled with porn or scratchy red lingerie. From what I remember the assistants, mostly men, favoured tea-stained t-shirts and shifty looks. The famous chain with a ladies-name was not at all female-friendly with its stock of blow-up sheep and dolls… Requests for batteries (to test for loudness or buzziness, not to try out – obviously!) were met with baffled looks.We even shocked one shop assistant so much he blurted out “we don’t get many female people in here!” It was clear that the only women catered for in sex shops were the inflatable sort.
Increasingly incensed, we widened our search to include fetish and gay men’s shops, but still the story was the same. Not a single place offered good quality playthings in a relaxed, open atmosphere that felt inclusive, or even unthreatening, to us as women.
So the seed for Sh! was sown and 3 months later I found myself sitting in a tiny shop in pre-gentrified Shoreditch wondering if any customers would come…