Is The Soho Sex Shop Dead?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 22 months ago
Is The Soho Sex Shop Dead?
Mark Phillips, retail buyer for Prowler in Soho.

"What?! He doesn't own this shop! That git is all mouth! OK then? Bye."

Things haven't started particularly well for us in Soho. An elderly man filing porn DVDs into plastic sleeves has got very shirty, very quickly. The interview we've set up is apparently not happening, and now we're being invited to leave.

As we trudge back upstairs — a litany of porn stars eyeballing us from their DVD covers — we wonder: why would anyone bother with this nonsense when there's a universe of naked flesh and sex accessory stores online?

A reminder of Soho's neon days in the 1960s and 70s.

Soho's been dripping in sex for centuries. A prostitute called 'Mrs. B—rdm—e' appears in Samuel Derrick's bizarre catalogue of 1757, Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies. "Though not blessed with what painters call a fine face," says Derrick, she is "so zealous in her devotions, that we would advise none, but the most capable, to hazard an engagement." Two centuries on, Paul Raymond was sewing the seedy seeds of Soho's neon era.

The sex shop has been a major part of the scene too. In Joseph Conrad's 1907 book The Secret Agent, the tragic Adolf Verloc shields his status as a spy behind shelves of erotica in a Soho boutique. Go back even a decade or two and you'd find basements peddling erotic books and VHS tapes all over Soho.

Sex toys on sale at Prowler. They also sell Christmas decorations.

Strange though it seems, as attitudes towards sex have become more relaxed, Soho's sex shops have all but wilted away. Will the internet now serve as their coup de grace?

"It depends," says Mark Phillips, a retail buyer for Prowler, a shop aimed at the gay market, and which faces the Raymond Revuebar neon on Brewer Street. "We have a good tourist flow here. But the future would probably be more of the store being a showroom of a selection of products that people will then buy online.

"The online service will be inside the store, so you can place the order and get the products delivered. People generally don't want the hassle of carrying things around."

Soho's Original Book Shop is a stalwart of the scene,

Prowler is a conspicuously friendly store; it opens at 11am on weekdays and is soon peppered with adults of all ages, browsing the shelves as if it were a Tesco Metro. No shifty glances or brown paper bags here.

"We have a lot of couples coming in," says Phillips, "we have hen dos, girls coming in for their boyfriends to buy underwear for them."  

Where sex is concerned, Phillips says, the personal touch is essential — trained staff who can run customers through what's what. Funnily enough, that's something you might not have got years ago.

Jamie O'Sullivan of Harmony. There was a noticeable spike in customers, he says, following the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.

Make the short walk to 103 Oxford Street — on the north frontier of Soho — and you come to Harmony. It's been here for over a decade, and its address is important: this is a high street shop. The most famous high street in the UK.

"What we wanted to do was a shopping experience that's as everyday as walking into Boots," says Jamie O'Sullivan, who oversees this family business, of which his two brothers are directors.

The internet, he agrees, has shaken things up, but he also sees this as an 'impulse buy' industry. Harmony's display windows are "less offensive than what you might see at H&M," and people will always be tempted to wander in off the street.

'Like walking into Boots': Harmony has brought sex to the UK's most famous high street.

The store is something that O'Sullivan is visibly proud of. Navigating us from lube to Rabbit vibrators to kinky dresses, he explains how this Harmony (there's another store on Charing Cross Road) starts off bright and airy in ambiance, becoming darker in tone the closer you venture towards the back wall.

Stairs on the ground floor lead to a basement, where products hot up in the form of dildos, bondage gear and hardcore porn. Still, the atmosphere remains decidedly 'high street', with air conditioning, pop music, and approachable staff — at least a couple of whom today are women.

Indeed, this incarnation of sex shop has opened up a whole new market, namely females. Says O'Sullivan, "We still get the odd lady who will come in — and it's really refreshing to hear — she says 'I wasn't too sure about coming in here but I'm so glad I did, because it's fine isn't it!'"

Underwear is a bestseller at Prowler.

Commercialising sex retail seems such an obvious move. But Harmony and Prowler have weathered the storm of an industry that's taken a more brutal thrashing than most.

When R18 certificate videos first came out in 1982, shops would shift 'hundreds and hundreds each month', says O'Sullivan. In 2000 the laws for what was acceptable relaxed further, and Fashionistas — a high budget hardcore production on double cassette — sold for around £40 or £50 a pop.

Those days are gone: "You get a new title now and you'd be lucky to sell six a month," O'Sullivan laughs.

As for magazines, he says, you literally can't give them away. Harmony customers get a free magazine with any DVD purchase, but many politely decline the freebie.

A handful of 'traditional' Soho sex shops are still operational.

Fresh obstacles continue to be chucked the sex shops' way, as Phillips explains:

"Now with the possibility of poppers being made illegal, that's been a real shake up for the industry," he says. "A lot of stores were reliant on that being the mainstay. You're getting rid of 34% of the business.

"We've changed our approach since then, to actually grow other product areas that we've been slower about." High quality underwear is one avenue that's recently been lucrative for Prowler.

Far from being people like O'Sullivan and Phillips being a dying breed, they're the survivors of the internet age, both doing a lot of online trade, as well as in-store. But isn't there another wolf at Soho's door, namely gentrification?

Phillips isn't so concerned: "I like the way the area has grown now," he says, "more so than I did when I started working here 20 years ago.

"I feel there's a lot more places for people to go, from the point of view of eating... so many diverse little stores which are also growing."

The couples market is now huge for Soho's forward-thinking sex shops.

Based as he is on Oxford Street, O'Sullivan doesn't seem too phased by the way Soho is changing either.

The shops which won't survive, he says, are the 'briefcase porn' traders. "How they survive is anyone's guess really," he says, "if you haven't moved with the times, it's bye bye."

We're inclined to agree with O'Sullivan, although while we're walking back through Soho later that day, we do see a huge stack of boxes being delivered outside the very same shop that told us to scram.

Someone, somewhere in London is getting mileage out of their DVD player.

Last Updated 30 September 2016