A purple, nine-inch, ribbed dildo glares at Christine Page and me.
“I brought these big ones in for shock value, didn’t expect people to buy them. But I have to tell you…”
She picks up the toy with two hands.
“We do sell them.”
Page is an older woman with large, hazel eyes and blonde hair. Her slender frame is masked by a puffy North Face vest. She looks like she should be handing me a Tupperware container of orange slices that she cut up this morning for her grandchild’s soccer game. Instead, Page hands me a large, shining, purple penis.
“For me and my staff, even we… are not sure. Never hear back from those customers.” She lets out a small, nervous laugh and continues on her tour of the Victoria sex shop.
When I arrived for the interview, Page had told me the history of the Garden of Eden was more interesting than her story.
The Garden of Eden was the second sex shop ever in B.C. and first in Victoria. It had once been located in a hotel where Page had worked for 20 years as a bartender.
When the owners decided to relocate the shop to another downtown storefront, they asked her to manage it, and eventually buy it. What had initially started out as a sort of favour became an 18-year-long endeavour.
“People always have this idea of what they think an adult store will look like for some reason,” Page leads me into the core of her shop, “but it’s just retail like any other store.”
In Victoria, most adult shops are owned by women because they’re more approachable when it comes to talking about intimate things, Page explains.
“Stores that the women own have become fluffy. My idea was to make it into an adult fun shop, not just the sex stuff.”
One half of the Garden of Eden is the grown-up equivalent of a candy store: bubble-gum pink vibrators, cotton candy G-strings, black leather handcuffs and whips. The other half is like an adult Halloween shop, filled with feather boas, rainbow face paint and Venetian masks.
Page says that some traditional adult merchandise is going the way of the dinosaur. Sex magazines are artifacts and DVDs are old-fashioned novelties, but she keeps them on hand for regulars.
“Your generation can go on the satellite or whatever,” Page says. “The only reason I’m still holding onto that stuff is for the older gentlemen that won’t change their ways.”
Despite online competition, the Garden of Eden will likely outlast other adult sex shops because Page has added the costume section, with corsets, feather boas and skintight catsuits that bring in profits around Halloween.
“We’ve survived because I’ve adapted,” she says, shrugging her shoulders nonchalantly.
Page breaks into a grin when we reach a display case full of high-end vibrators — her bread and butter in the sex section of the store. There are different styles and brands, all unexpectedly sleek, with modern designs. They remind me of iPhones, each an improvement on the last.
“Years ago, women wouldn’t come in these stores, and if you did, they classified you as that kind of woman,” Page says. “It was totally taboo. But a lot has changed now.”
She zeroes in on a small, white box that says We-Vibe and pulls it out of the display case.
“Products have really got techy now, too. There are vibrators that sell for $259, with Bluetooth, that you can turn on from anywhere in the world,” she says. “They run on a remote control and there’s an app to download your music onto, so they pulse to the beat.” She slides the modestly designed box open and pulls out a grey, C-shaped plastic device.
“Beautiful packaging and it’s rechargeable, no batteries. You can wear it while you’re making love with your partner. It’s one of our bestselling toys ever.”
She picks out another model. This one is inconspicuous, a silver tube that looks like lipstick. “Cruise ship staff buy this one the most, because it’s quiet — it’s on right now, full blast.” There is the faintest hint of a buzz.
“Aha! The Womanizer, this is new on the block and very popular.” Page lifts up the medium-sized blue toy, shaped like a toothbrush with a cone on one end covered in silicone bristles.
“That looks like a trombone…” I start to say before Page jumps in, placing the head of the device on the back of my hand.
“This part vibrates, but that goes on your clitoris. Isn’t that unreal?” She looks up at me as though she has just discovered the first nugget in the California gold rush. She pulls the trumpeted end, which had been sucking the back of my hand, off with a ‘pop’ and blows the top of the toy as though it is a smoking gun. “Women say they can have an orgasm in two seconds with these.”
Behind the case of sophisticated vibrators is a wall littered with old-fashioned toys. “This was your choice 30 years ago,” Page plucks a plain, white dildo that looks like a candle off the wall. I get the sense we have just gone from a Bugatti to a bike.
“I remember when it came out in different colours and everyone was like, oh my god! Now sex toys retail for $200. Easily.”
She places the Neolithic dildo back onto the wall.
After we have looked at much of the Garden of Eden’s merchandise, Page disappears into the back of her store.
A couple of minutes later she re-emerges, holding a cardboard box that contains what looks like a Dr. Seuss-esque vacuum cleaner.
It’s not. “This is the fetish machine,” she says. “You can make love with your partner, but not with your partner.” Clearly some artistic liberties have been taken, and it is terrifying.
I’m crouched on the ground studying the machine, with its fleshlight on one side and phallic attachment on the other, when a Victoria police officer walks in. My first thought is, I am squatting beside a fetish machine. I attempt to scooch away from the mechanism as Page walks calmly up to the officer and greets him with a handshake. Their exchange is professional and short. When she returns, she tells me that she had called the police earlier to tip them off about someone trying to sell her human-haired wigs that may have been stolen.
“Most people have this perception about sex shops, that they’re greasy and dingy. Until they meet me.” She chuckles as the officer exits with a nod. “They think I’m going to be some big guy with a lot of tattoos or a dragon or something. Then they meet me and they’re like, you own the Garden of Eden? Well yeah, what did you think I was going to look like?”
“We sell a lot of anal toys,” Page explains animatedly. “They are very popular with everyone these days.”
Her contented look morphs into a frown, and for the first time I’m reminded that she is a grandmother as worried creases settle on her face. “Straight guys are not crazy about anal play themselves, but they come in and buy stuff for women because they see it in porn. You have to be very careful with anal sex, though.”
She cheers up when I notice the information pamphlets on the wall that say things like “THE GRAND PRIX OF STROKING & SUCKING” and “PENIS PUMPS FOR BEGINNERS.” She begins rushing across the small store, tearing the brochures off the shelves and handing them to me. “These will be good for you. They will really explain a lot of stuff.”
Page then launches into an account of her bestselling items, with lube recently getting a slight edge over vibrators because a wider array of customers now use it. In the old days, men weren’t as open to lube as a sex enhancer — an ego thing, according to Page — but they have since become more accepting of the trend.
“Here’s edible lube. People always get confused about it — why would you put a taste in lube? Because it’s for oral sex, of course.” Page picks up a pretty bottle with a flower on it. “This is Pink. Women really like it because it’s natural and smells nice.” She sets it down, and gestures to a lineup of tubes with dark packaging. “And here’s Gun Oil and Fuck Water. Men seem to like those.”
Page tells me about one of her latest outings at an acquaintance’s cocktail party.
“I was surrounded by these women who embraced me and talked to me. But the minute they found out I owned the Garden of Eden, they shunned me.” She zips her puffer vest up and down, up and down, up and down. Her eyebrows knit together. “It’s a strong stigma, and it blows me away. They just shunned me.”
As a sex shop owner, you likely learn just as much about the human psyche as you do about the desire for sex. Once a female customer came in wearing hooves and reins and asked to be dominated like a horse. Another time a group of nine strapping young New York firefighters bought a butt plug the size of large dinner plate for one of their friends as a joke. And recently, a man in his 80s came into the store looking for a life-sized sex doll, because he had lost just his wife and didn’t feel as though he deserved to find love again.
Assumptions are dangerous. One time I met a grandmother who owned a sex shop.
Before I leave the Garden of Eden, Page offers one more message.
“People think too much about sex these days. They read Cosmopolitan, they have to have an orgasm every time they have sex, they have to have sex every time they touch. But I always say, can’t everybody just wind down and stop with all the sex for a minute?”
She presses two, floppy penis pens into my hand and smiles. “They’re on the house — and remember, be safe!”
Read more: Gender + Sexuality