June 1998
s m u g
bumping uglies
by Todd Levin


Buyer Beware: The American Dream in a Plain Brown Wrapper

My grandfather, Abraham, was an entrepreneur and a family disgrace. In that order, actually. He was an aspiring businessman, with a keen eye for new and interesting financial ventures, but usually with a crucially missed angle. Was he misunderstood? Maybe. Was he myopic? Yes, I think so. Was he completely revolting to regard while he was eating barbecued chicken off the bone? Unquestionably. But he was a kind grandfather, constantly beckoning his grandchildren to him so he could recount in fascinating detail countless stories of his service in the United States Army during the Second World War, and the numerous bouts of syphillis he had to battle with overseas alone, without the loving care of family. He would then place warm, sweaty "I LIKE IKE" lapel pins in our tiny little hands and send us running to the store to face, over and over again, the embarrassing discovery that one cannot purchase candy with old presidential campaign paraphernalia. Abraham was incredibly sweet when he wasn't "chasing the dragon", as my grandmother often put it. Confound that dragon.

In the nineteen seventies and eighties my grandfather ran his money through a seemingly endless stream of failed businesses. Some said Abraham got his terrible business sense from his father, who was employed briefly as a usurer in Poland just before the War. Opening a Vietnamese restaurant to commemorate the fall of Saigon was Abraham's first clear miss, and closed within hours of its opening, its swift failure aided by a flurry of heavy stones and homemade explosives hurled through the plate glass storefront by some of the volunteers at the U.S. Marines recruiting center located across the street. Sadly, that fiasco was quickly followed by several others spanning over the next 11 years. Some of the more noteworthy failures were the Honest Abe Savings Bank for Puppies, Abraham's Farm-Quality Fresh Cream and Active Industrial Heating Unit Warehouse, and his good-hearted but noticeably short-sighted luncheonette with a "Homeless War Veterans and Paranoid Schizophrenics Eat Free" policy. (A policy which was hugely popular in the community, but not the "moneyed" members of the community, who are usually more desirable in terms of seeking a financial success, but admittedly far less desirable if you are trying to find someone who will kill your math teacher for a pint of ripple and a carton of Kools). But no business venture was more pathetic than his erotic novelties shop, which he ran for approximately three months in 1982, before the bad word got out and he was forced to close his self-made shop doors a final time.

I think my grandfather's erotic novelties shop should serve as a case study for any would-be adult novelty entrepreneurs or patrons. I would be willing to say that no one in the history of domestic and European erotic novelties has made as many mistakes in the general planning and execution of that business model as could be counted in Abraham's Discount Schtupermarket (even the name was not generally regarded as "sexy"). Both a lesson in economics and good taste for would-be retailers, I think it deserves a respectable burial here.


Let me preface (mostly because I enjoy prefacing very, very much - nearly as much as I enjoy forewarding, preambling and a light post-ambling as the occasion presents itself) by saying this: Abraham was restricted by law from operating a business of this sort, partly because of some other suspicious business practices of his and partly because of zoning laws which prohibited the operation of an adult entertainment wholesale outlet in the corner of an active public playground. But that -- like the Nazis and the Better Business Bureau -- didn't stop a very pig-headed and foolhardy Abraham. Instead of simply trying to open his business somewhere a little more discreet, he cut a deal with a pinochle buddy of his who had a fairly influential position in the Parks Commission and opened the Schtupermarket right behind the corkscrew slide.

Worse still, in an effort to skirt the aforementioned legal restraints, he cheated his entire inventory. Abraham didn't have the first idea of where to hook up with a pornographic magazine distributor to stock his store so he took matters into his own hands. He would steal magazines - TIME, NEWSWEEK, FAMILY CIRCLE, etc. - from his dermatologist's office and mark up the covers; scotch-taping photographs from old Hustler magazines on top of the otherwise drab front cover features. Additionally, Abraham would take a black permanent marker to the innocuous news and popular interest journals and alter the titles to something more suitably suggestive for his anticipated clientele. For example, on the Schtupermarket's magazine rack you might find slightly suspicious looking glossies with names like TIME to Fuck, or NEWSWEEK in the Knees Because the Lady Might Like to FUCK, or READERS' DIGESTed Semen (large print version). It was truly sad, primarily because he usually sold out of stock very quickly. Sometimes the suggestive power of something dirty is enough. Either that, or Abraham inadvertently uncovered a fetish for hard-hitting news written at a fourth grade reading level.

Other infractions of industry practices included, but were not limited to the following:

  • A prominently displayed case of curiously fashioned "Magic Merlin Man-tasy Dildoes" which, to the trained (or even properly functioning) eye, were nothing more than loose, out of style lawn gnomes.
  • Crotchless Panties "home kits" which consisted of a nondescript pair of jockey underpants and some children's safety scissors stuffed haphazardly into a Ziploc® Freezer Bag. Worse yet, the cutting instructions were in Bantu.
  • "Flash Gordon Astro-Strap-ons", an invented product of Abraham's deluded marketing imagination, which he started stocking around the same time I misplaced the joystick set from my Atari 2600. I never forgave him for that.
  • S&M private rooms, where the more deviant patrons could drop 4 quarters into an excavated mayonnaise jar and enter a small broom closet where my grandmother would hit them frantically with a wooden spoon and curse them out in Yiddish.

Suffice it to say, no one really missed Abraham's Discount Schtupermarket and, despite the "deals" he offered there, it became quickly apparent that wholesale prices are generally not motivating factor for would-be erotica customers. Abraham tried to cut some corners and pass on the savings but, as usual with fairly depressing results. When his store was bulldozed by local government very few tears were shed. (Perhaps in an effort to kill the memories, the playground was also destroyed and immediately converted into a public dump for brightly colored broken glass. Sadly, though, the playground sign was never properly removed and we lost more than a few of our potential little league stars to the seductive, playful promise of a 40 foot pile of shiny glass shards.) But I saw something die in Abraham that day. He grew a terribly quiet and despondent after his final business effort and, in some sense, his own independence, became dust. (he eventually died penniless, at the age of 82, from what my grandmother claims was food poisoning. Incidentally, she is still in litigation over this claim with the Head and Shoulders Dandruff Shampoo Corporation.) I have always felt that the resistance Papa Abraham met with every commercial endeavor of his was, in his mind, a direct contradiction to this former immigrant's promise of the American Dream. In fact, people said to him on more than one occasion, with intended irony, "Abraham, the American Dream can be yours, if you'd just wake up". I miss him dearly and if I often think to myself, "if I had an 'I LIKE IKE' lapel pin for every crazy idea my grandfather tried to cook up - oh, wait. I do."




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