(Note: This story appears in the April 2022 issue of SE Magazine)

As a former greens-person, Brian Robinson knows about taking care of plant life. It should be no surprise then that he has since nurtured the Pleasure Chest chain of adult stores.

In 1996, three-and-a-half years into his chemistry degree, 21-year-old Brian Robinson needed a break. He jumped at the opportunity to briefly assist a friend, working on a TV show shooting in Seattle, “Northern Exposure.”

Robinson’s short hiatus became a five-year stint as the show’s greens-person (the person tasked with taking care of anything “green” or natural on a film set). When the show ended, Robinson moved to New York. He discovered that since a beloved uncle’s death 10 years earlier, his long-standing Pleasure Chest adult stores in New York and Chicago had been operating rudderless because his heirs couldn’t agree on a plan for the stores. Robinson saw potential, got a loan from his grandparents for a leveraged buyout, and suddenly, the son of a minister found himself in the adult retail business.

Brian Robinson

“On my first day, the manager and business manager quit, five days before Christmas, refusing to show me anything without an exorbitant hourly fee and severance payment,” recalls Robinson. “It was challenging. I couldn’t even find the bank accounts to transfer over. Nothing was computerized, and there were no order books. I pored over paper invoices to find suppliers. I learned retail from the ground up — a big endeavor for such small stores.”

SE Magazine’s Larry Kaplan spoke with Robinson about his vocational about-face, his plans for Pleasure Chest moving forward, and the positive impact on the brand stemming from “Sex and the City.”

SE: What were the stores like then?

ROBINSON: They were rough. Everything was black, felt walls, very dark, leather-S&M style, old wall-to-wall gray carpets. Sales staff were mostly S&M-looking, black-leather-vested men smoking behind the counter, even though most customers were women. It was the mid-’90s, yet despite limited selection, the stores attracted straight women because they were convenient and clean, and their only other options were a few old XXX stores they wouldn’t patronize. We had a tradename and, as diversity opened up, everything gay became super popular.

I lacked the money to redo them, but I immediately eliminated the black décor, smoking and matched the diversity of our clientele which made it a stronger retail shopping experience. The West Village store had huge Seventh Avenue Bergdorf-style display windows. With my art background, I spent considerable time doing crazy windows that made people more comfortable walking into a sex shop. Returning to what I knew was my break from doing business. The store became known for its windows. Those few changes increased sales dramatically.

SE: Your uncle, Duane Colglazier, founded Pleasure Chest in 1971. Tell me about him. Was he inspirational to you?

ROBINSON: I was much younger. But, growing up, of all the grownups, he was so playful and respectful to us kids, treating us like people. When every other adult talked the grownup talk, he’d be wrestling and playing with his nieces and nephews. He was bigger than life, our favorite uncle. He had a New York-style, bringing us great gifts. While he wasn’t inspirational in business – we didn’t even know what his business was – his excitement at life was inspirational. He was well-traveled. He took my grandparents on several around-the-world trips.

SE: What effect did Sex and the City’s famous 1998 Rabbit episode where Miranda brings her friends to your West Village store have on your sales and brand?

ROBINSON: In that episode, they don’t use our name, just the store as a theme. People in the business and our customers recognized it. When it aired, many people who saw it came in. Once the show got huge, they started the Sex and the City bus tour, showing the Manhattan filming locations. That’s still going after 20-plus years. We’ve gotten lots of recognition from visitors in that Sex and the City age group worldwide.

SE: I understand your uncle’s heirs sold off the LA store? Can you tell me about that store and how you repurchased it?

ROBINSON: In 2004, the LA store owner was settling a big divorce. He was going through bankruptcy, and a trustee who was auctioning the store called me because I owned the trade name, wondering if a new owner could license the name? I explained I was the ideal buyer and worked with him to be the initial bidder to provide protection. Once the sale closed, adding that store back with the New York and Chicago stores increased our sales, restoring us to a consistent national brand.

Since then, the LA store has gotten considerable attention between reality television, Kardashians, dating shows, and numerous media mentions. It’s because of our location and how we do what we do.

SE: There were formerly additional Pleasure Chest stores elsewhere. Do you plan on reopening any of these or adding others?

ROBINSON: Yes. Currently, I’m building another project adjacent to the LA Pleasure Chest. It’s a pleasure center, all phased in cannabis. We’ll have Pleasure Med cannabis retail similar to Pleasure Chest. Upstairs, we’re planning a 130-seat restaurant with a cannabis lounge to consume and smoke cannabis. We’ll also have a 50-seat outdoor restaurant with an alcohol license. So, once you enter the lot, it’s the Pleasure Chest to the left, the lounge and retail to the right, plus the outdoor bar/restaurant, all in this Pleasure Campus.

New York store front

SE: If you add more locations, would you buy existing stores, open new ones, or create more pleasure campuses?

ROBINSON: This is the first Pleasure Campus; I want some experience to determine the synergies between the sexuality and cannabis worlds. I think it’s a great fit and a huge market, so I’m most interested in repeating that combination.

But I’d also do one-offs; opportunity is opportunity. It’s challenging to find new space with local laws; an existing store is easier, but if we can find a perfect location and get a variance, I’m open to that too.

SE: What are the advantages to having a chain of stores? Is it about branding, buying power, the ability to expand into campuses?

ROBINSON: It’s all of that. There are some economies of scale, but more importantly, I think we do things differently than others. When people enter our stores, they feel comfortable that the staff’s guidance can be trusted and helps on their journey. Once you add atmosphere, personal connection, and the right selection, that’s a magic connection. Not all communities have that.

SE: In 2008, you started your Pleasure Ed workshop series at your stores. Tell me about your advocacy for sexual wellness?

ROBINSON: Until COVID, our stores held free, weekly informational workshops hosted by many knowledgeable staff who love conducting them. While most other stores charge for workshops, we want to make that information accessible to all. We also use some national speakers at the workshops when they’re in town.

SE: What challenges does online retail present to your stores?

ROBINSON: There’ll always be room for brick-and-mortar adult, if done right, in a welcoming atmosphere where people can have dialogue, become educated and find exciting things. You can’t see, touch, feel, and learn about each item’s function, color, and fit at your computer. We’ll always exist because we’re a fun field trip or errand. It’s not just opening a package. We can see the energy in customers’ bodies as they foresee a big, fun night with themselves, a loved one, a group, or whatever their chosen journey calls for.

“Currently, I’m building another project adjacent to the LA Pleasure Chest. It’s a pleasure center, all phased in cannabis. We’ll have Pleasure Med cannabis retail similar to Pleasure Chest. Upstairs, we’re planning a 130-seat restaurant with a cannabis lounge to consume and smoke cannabis. We’ll also have a 50-seat outdoor restaurant with an alcohol license. So, once you enter the lot, it’s the Pleasure Chest to the left, the lounge and retail to the right, plus the outdoor bar/restaurant, all in this Pleasure Campus.” — Brian Robinson

SE: What do you see for the future of brick-and-mortar stores, adult and otherwise?

ROBINSON: Traditional malls with department store anchors and nothing going on are dying. Nobody’s interested in just looking at sales and browsing windows anymore. But malls converted to outdoor spaces with added high-end gyms, restaurants, and sometimes theaters or live theaters — that’s more of a community; people crave to be around others. So, having our LA Pleasure Chest store, then adding the cannabis lounge, cannabis retail, and outdoor bar/restaurant, there’s something to do besides shop; there’s experience. There’s learning about several different worlds, the sexual wellness world, the medical wellness world, the cannabis entertainment world. That’s an exciting part that will drive people to want to experience it.

SE: How much of your business is online? Do you think it’s a different customer? Or are the same customers sometimes buying online?

ROBINSON: We’re competitive online, but it’s only a portion of our sales. Our top online cities are New York, Chicago, and LA. So, many brick-and-mortar customers who know what they want choose online for convenience.

We’re moving our Upper East Side store to Lexington and 62nd, a retail corridor, just a block-and-a-half north of Bloomingdale’s. I’m excited to be in such a tony area.

SE: Was it hard to get a location there? It seems landlords still don’t understand the difference between modern adult retail and the old trench coat stores.

ROBINSON: It helped that we’d put in a lovely store at Second Avenue and 63rd. We went through 30 different landlords before finding that, but it was much easier once we got that established. We’re moving because they’re building a high-rise where we are now. It would typically be difficult for us to rent there, but it was easier once they saw what we’d done.

Larry Kaplan has been the Legal Correspondent for ED Publications for 21 years. Mr. Kaplan is a broker in the sale and purchase of adult retail stores and adult nightclubs and the Executive Director of the ACE of Michigan adult nightclub state trade association. Contact Larry Kaplan at 313-815-3311 or email larry@kaplanstoresales.com.