A love store story

Lior Shabo, co-owner of Sense in the center of town, was a little nervous when he first opened his shop over two years ago and created a little counter for products meant to liven up bedroom activities, things like flavored erotic oils, games for couples, and body chocolate. "We had many doubts in the beginning," he says. "We didn't know how the public would perceive this store." Idit Ben-Haim, a pioneer in the Jerusalem "love" business, experienced similar doubts when opening Lo.Ve.La on bustling Rehov Emek Refaim in the summer of 2004. She soon found her doubts unfounded. "When we opened, it took a while for people to say 'we're open-minded, we want to check it out,'" she says. "Now people are more eager." Shabo and Ben Haim are now preparing for Valentine's Day, increasing their stock of love products - from heart shaped knick-knacks to sensual body creams - to accommodate a steadily growing, diverse clientele. Unlike classic sex shops, their stores have become an integrated, mainstream part of the city's commercial landscape. The original intention of Shabo and his partner Tal Mizrahi, both 29 years old and self-proclaimed "romantics at birth," was to open a shop for spa, body, and home d cor products. The duo soon realized that the Jerusalem market was more adventurous than originally predicted, and his little "love corner" soon grew into a separate department. "People asked for more because they never really encountered such products," recalls Shabo. A year after the store opened, he knocked out the storage room upstairs and transformed it into a private area especially designed to house products that may make some Jerusalemites blush: edible panties, furry lingerie, and instruction books. He keeps a special drawer for vibrators and dildos. But Shabo is offended when his store is called a "sex shop." "We don't deal with sex, but with foreplay, and the way for couples to express their feelings through this process," he explains. Lo.Ve.La, a play on the words "love" and "lo ve'la" (in Hebrew "him and her") was a risqu endeavor from the start. The 35-year-old entrepreneur left her job as a hotel events director to pursue this pent-up ambition. Her vision was to create a space and atmosphere where women and couples of all cultural and religious orientations could walk in and, with little shame, receive advice not just about "love" products, but about creative ways to liven up their relationships. Gentle lighting, warm fabrics, decorative beads, and a friendly sales staff put customers at ease, making them feel as if they are walking into an elegant gift shop. The more hardcore items, like sex toys and dildos, however, are on display in a back room, available for examination upon request. "I was afraid to sell sex toys in the store, then I realized that the demand was so great, I had to," she recalls. The idea of Lo.Ve.La caught on quickly, and she has set up mini "chains" of Lo.Ve.La products within gift and body care shops throughout the country. Even a gift shop on Rehov Sheinkin, Tel Aviv's trendy center, features a Lo.Ve.La corner. That such shops, that approach the subject of intimacy without the potential sleaze, have made their home in the Holy City shouldn't come too much as a surprise. "Jerusalem is very different than Tel Aviv," explains Ben Haim. "They don't speak the same language. In Tel Aviv you can go to a club and they have 'S&M' night… What's nice in Jerusalem is that there are still values. In Tel Aviv nothing's sacred anymore." The religious community, in fact, is a natural market for products meant to enhance sexual activity within relationships, at least "kosher" ones. Satisfying intimacy in marriage is an important value among religious couples, says certified sex counselor and urogynecological physical therapist Talli Y. Rosenbaum, who is modern Orthodox. "Every woman - it really doesn't matter if she's religious or not - is entitled to enhance her sexuality and, as a result, improve the intimacy as a couple. It would not be surprising that religious women, like any woman, would want to do what they can to enhance the intimacy of their sex lives." This includes the use of oils, games, and vibrators. "Religious couples generally approach sexuality and intimacy with a sense of privacy and modesty, values which I advocate." As a result, love products and dildos should be packaged tastefully and discreetly if they are to appeal to a religious community, but Rosenbaum cautions, "They should be used to enhance marital intimacy and not as a substitute for a healthy sexual relationship." A conservative approach to sex aides is taken by Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl, author of Ish V'isha (translated literally, Man and Woman), a halachic guidebook for religious couples. He is not familiar with love shops, but thinks that the use of tools like vibrators need not apply to couples with healthy relationships. "These things are for couples that need some kind of treatment," he says. "I don't see them as a tool for a couple that, thank God, functions normally… A couple should find interest in each other. They don't need outside stimulation." Walking into such love or sex shops doesn't require a rabbi's approval; the question is what they purchase. If a couple is having intimacy problems, he suggests that they consult their rabbi. Rosenbaum, who also treats women with sexual problems, is often referred to by rabbis. She believes that certain sexual tools may be helpful, but adds: "I would hesitate to send them directly to a sex shop. I work with suppliers who deal with these products in a discreet and modest manner." Beverley Damelin, a sex educator who runs workshops in Jerusalem and founding editor of dinahproject.com, a sex information Web site, offers consumer advice to potential "love" and sex shop patrons. She recommends researching products to make informed purchases. "Stores can be helpful and a lot of fun, and there is something very positive to be gained with experimenting, but you may not necessarily be getting the right information," she says, explaining that salespeople are often not qualified health specialists. "When you have people who come into a store who don't do this very often, they are often gullible and can be talked into buying unsuitable products from people with little authority on this subject." And for those who have no partner for whom to buy something on Valentine's Day, she offers some words of comfort. "Valentine's Day can be an abuse of commercialism, and so many people are made to feel inadequate by it, rather than better. If there is something you might want, why not get it for yourself?"