Wednesday, June 02, 2004


There’s a store just down the road from me called “Red Hot Video.” It has all black windows. I figured it was a porno store. But then I noticed the signs advertising that they had “All Ratings” and the “Widest Selection.” Why would they put up signs like that if they only had porn? So one evening, after failing to find the title I was looking for at Blockbuster, I decided to check it out.

You know how sometimes you judge a book by its cover, and then you actually check it out and discover you were all wrong? Yeah, well, this was not one of those times. It was a porno store. But here’s the funny part. Although the back room was filled with porn, the little front room had four walls covered with the most amazingly craptacular collection of non-porn movies ever. “Ishtar,” Howie Mandel’s “Little Monsters,” “Gremlins 3”… you get the idea. It was like they had deliberately gone through and removed every movie with more than 1.5 stars. It was a veritable vortex of suckiness. And no new movies either, mind you. It was all from the 1980s, as far as I could tell. Oh, and no DVDs.

In the center of the room, I did not find more racks of crappy movies. Instead, there were 15 or 20 large bins of lousy merchandise. Popcorn and candy, maybe? Nope. In one bin I found a pile of plastic disposable razors. In the next, a jumble of plastic spider-rings, like kids wear on Halloween. In another, temporary tattoos. Thumbtacks. Hair scrunchies. Rubber balls. I can’t remember what else, but it was all random, low-quality, disposable, and made in China or Taiwan.

What was going on? As always, I have a theory. I suspect there must be some arcane zoning regulations that, among other things, regulate the percentage of a store’s floorspace or inventory that can be devoted to sex-related products. Or perhaps sex stores are subject to regulations not imposed on other businesses, and you can avoid the sex-store classification by stocking enough other stuff. Either way, the business ends up buying a bunch of merchandise they don’t expect anyone to buy, purely to meet some arbitrary quota. Stocking the bins with crapola makes sense because (a) it’s cheap to stock, and (b) no one will ever bother to buy it, which means no delivery and restocking costs. Sure, they could put high-quality merchandise there, but who would ever walk into a porno store looking for it?

A similar phenomenon occurred in New York City while I was living there, after Giuliani pushed through a slew of anti-sex-shop zoning regulations. And I have confirmation on my theory here, because the regulations had been the subject of a public debate. The new rules specified (among other things) that no sex-related business could be located within X yards of a school, church, community center, or other sex-related business. They defined “sex-related business” in terms of floorspace, as I recall.

The stores responded (I, uh, heard somewhere) by stocking 90% of their shelves and floorspace with a sparse array of other items. And then they’d cram literally hundreds of porn videos into one little corner of the shop. The result? Stores that were almost completely empty, except for a crowd of horny men all clustered together in an area about the size of a walk-in closet, trying to avoid eye contact. All part of the mayor’s brilliant plan, I assume.

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