Toronto Through the Eyes of Come As You Are Co-Owner Sarah Forbes-Roberts
Today's fourth annual Toronto Erotic Arts and Crafts Fair at The Gladstone is an opportunity to discover new creative work and foster local arts and crafts people, says organizer Sarah Forbes-Roberts (second from right in photo).
Handmade products include everything from buttons and greeting cards to lingerie, corsets and garter belt long johns.
As one of four co-owners of Come As You Are, the world's only co-operative sex store, Forbes-Roberts says the store approaches sexuality with respect, openness, and an emphasis on education. Established in 1997, the store, she says, also reflects and responds to the diversity of the people of Toronto.
What distinguishes Come As You Are from other sex stores in Toronto?
The big thing would be that we're a cooperative. Our values relate directly to being an educational, community-based store. So our focus is really on providing customers lots of information and support around their sexual choices. And we really believe people should have as many sexual choices as possible and that there's no one right way to be sexual.
Who does your store cater to?
We all believe very strongly in carrying as many products as we can that appeal to all the sexual tastes out there. We actually review all our toys ourselves, and books and DVDs, so that we know what we're carrying and give people pros and cons for them all. Because we don't believe that there's one product that's good for everyone. So we will talk people out of things or suggest they start with inexpensive products if they're not sure. We do a lot of that sort of comparing toys, one to another. Because there's so many products out there.
How do the attitudes of your customers vary?
It definitely varies. There's a lot of customers who have never been in a sex store before. We like being the store people can feel comfortable in right away. But for some people it takes two or three visits. Some people are really comfortable but you never know who is who so our whole thing is about leaving judgement at the door.
How have those attitudes changed over the past 13 years?
I think a lot more people shop on our website before coming in. In the early days that wasn't so much the case because the internet wasn't even as big as it is now and people certainly weren't using it as a resource like they are now. People do comparison shopping and they come in and have very specific questions. It's still hard to come into a sex store and ask questions. We still recognize that and help work with people and figure out what questions they need to ask. But we're getting more and more people coming in knowing what they need to ask or even coming in with shopping lists.
How do you ensure the atmosphere is comfortable?
We've set up the physicality of the store so you sort of ease yourself in. We have books and safer sex gear and lube at the front, those tend to be the things people are a lot more comfortable accessing. Some people just come into our book section and just sit down on our bench and read for a bit before they feel comfortable in the space. We know that anytime you walk into a different space you need time to acclimatize. Everything's really brightly lit. We don't have many photos of people or graphic images. We have art shows. Bright colours. It's a fun space. People say it looks like a candy store, which I like, because it kind of is a candy store.
Why does a store like this work in Toronto?
Well Toronto is a very diverse city. There are lots of people who have never lived in a big city before who move to Toronto. There are lots of people who are very world traveled so have visited lots of sex stores. So we kind of run the whole gamut. I think Toronto is big enough for lots of different sex stores so the fact that we're a store for everybody works for most people but not for everybody. So we still believe in there being choices for different stores.
Do you think the location of your store is important?
We've been here for so long that we really have a tender part in our hearts for Queen West. And Queen West has changed quite a bit. We opened many years ago. There's a lot more street traffic. Stores are still constantly coming in and leaving so the neighbourhood's always changing. But for us because our store is really about art and the community and being street level it's definitely been a good community for us. Because it's a real mix of class and galleries and brand new designers still. Eventually it probably will become extremely gentrified but it hasn't really crossed that barrier yet completely.
Why was the Montreal store only open for one year (2003 - 2004)?
The people of Montreal are very sexually open. The politics of the city are such that it's very difficult to open a sex store in Montreal. And we couldn't really open downtown the way we wanted to. And as a cooperative it's hard to get financing and we couldn't struggle for five years and not make any money so we did choose to close the store. We made a lot of great contacts there and we have a French website now and still have someone who works there who does customer service so we don't feel it was a negative experience. It was lovely.
Is there an effort to find and sell locally-produced products in your store?
That's absolutely what we love to do and what we're mostly interested in and that's why we created the Erotic Arts and Crafts Fair, is to really nurture arts and crafts people who may one day make handmade dildos that we can sell in our store or handmade pasties. Because we want more than there are. If we have a choice between purchasing a local manufacturer's product and someone who's not local we will definitely choose the local. And we actually have an icon on our website that says "Canadian Made."
Because in Canada we're sort of limited there's not very much manufacturing here. Especially in the world of sex toys. There's some lube companies, there's one silicon dildo company. One of our favourite manufacturers actually is this silicon dildo company near Peterborough and it's just a husband and wife who live on a farm and have goats and chickens and they manufacture silicon dildos. There's just the two of them.
How have you seen the Erotic Arts and Crafts show over the past four years?
We've seen the numbers pretty much double every year. So last year we had 1,300 people attending the fair. So it's been really great. And a lot of new artists and new people are kind of inspired by it, go home to make crafts and that's what we want to see. We wanted to create this awesome venue that people are really excited about, and are inspired to put their ideas down in stitch or print or what have you.
What do you like about living in the city?
The different neighbourhoods. And being able to explore the city and find new neighbourhoods that you haven't been to before. And it's kind of like you can find a new city within Toronto all the time if you just go a little farther north or a little farther east or what have you. And I love the fact that in those communities once you've established yourself you do feel like it's a tight knit village.
What are your favourite neighbourhoods?
I guess I'd have to say Parkdale and Roncesvalles would be my favourite. I like just walking around and going to galleries and vintage stories. And I love how many there are in that neighbourhood so and they're all a little bit different. And I feel like each place is kind of an art installation in itself, even the vintage stores. It's sort of like a curatorial project in my mind, what people put together and what sort of odd objects they find. Relics from the past sort of thing.
What are your favourite stores?
Any favourite restaurants or bars?
If someone was new to the city, where would you suggest they check out?
I'd probably send them to 401 Richmond because you can wander around and there's so many different galleries in there and it's really eclectic.
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