Fells Point businesses fight condom store plan

September 20, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Jeanne Brown says she's a "yuppie mom from Lutherville who just wants to open a little shop and earn enough money to put her two sons through prep school and college.

So how has she gotten business people in Fells Point so riled up?

The problem is her shop -- The Rubber Tree -- would sell condoms.

Eight Fells Point merchants don't want it to open and have appealed The Rubber Tree's occupancy permit. That hasn't stopped Mrs. Brown, a former elementary school teacher and banker's wife.

"It's not a sex shop. . . . I'm not into sleaze at all," said Mrs. Brown, 43, who worked at Macy's in Hunt Valley until it closed earlier this year.

"It's going to be presented in a very tasteful, masculine format. Nothing offensive, no nudity, no battery-operated anything, nothing that's anatomically correct," she said. "I want people to feel comfortable enough to buy the product so they'll use them."

Similar condom shops with safer-sex themes have opened successfully in other major cities. Glenn McKinney, owner of CondomRageous in Washington and Georgetown said he, too, plans to open a shop in Baltimore, probably near the Inner Harbor, as soon as next month.

But Mrs. Brown's pitch has not reassured a handful of Fells Point business people. They fear The Rubber Tree might offend the older people and families they're trying to attract to Fells Point. And they fear it might open the door to businesses being squeezed off The Block, Baltimore's downtown "adult entertainment" district, which the Schmoke administration wants to close down.

The merchants' actions already have prevented Mrs. Brown from opening as planned Oct. 1. Instead, she'll have to defend her shop at a hearing before the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals late next month or early in November. "They're not going to make me go away that easily," she said. "This is un-American as far as I'm concerned."

The local shop owners take a different view.

"We have enough things in Fells Point to appeal to people who like to imbibe," said Linda Lowe, general manager of Henderson's Wharf, whose name appears on the appeal. The neighborhood also has places to buy sex toys and adult magazines.

"I don't think we need something else you'll have to explain to children below a certain age," she said.

Mrs. Brown insists her shop won't be like that. "I don't think anyone would be embarrassed to come into my shop," she said.

The main product line will be a selection of some 60 types of condoms, of all colors and textures, many of which are available in pharmacies and grocery stores, she said. None of the condoms will be displayed unrolled, she said, and she also plans to distribute safer-sex literature provided by AIDS education organizations.

"I haven't tried to disguise what I'm doing because I don't think it's anything that needs to be disguised," she said. "I think a lot of people who frequent that area, especially on weekends, are just the type of people that need to be buying these things."

In addition to condoms, Mrs. Brown said, The Rubber Tree will offer greeting cards with a "Turning 40"-type sexual theme often found in shopping mall card shops. "A little skin, but no [body] parts," she said.

There also will be T-shirts with packaged condoms attached, intended as gag gifts, with messages like "In case of emergency, break glass." They will show "nothing graphic," Mrs. Brown said, but rather "things kids can wear to school and not get kicked out."

She also will sell key rings and compacts with condoms inside, massage oils, bubble bath, posters, and condoms packaged with mistletoe intended as Christmas gifts.

Her own sons, now in eighth and 12th grades, will help out behind the counter. There will be no age limits on customers.

"I'm encouraging anyone who is having sex to protect themselves," she said. "I'm not going to make any judgments and say, 'I'm sorry, you're too young to be doing this.' "

In their appeal, opponents told the zoning board they believe it "belongs on The Block, and not in a historic residential/commercial community such as Fells Point. We also believe that tourists disembarking from the Inner Harbor water shuttles will be as offended by such a business as are we merchants."

The merchants must now prove the city was wrong in issuing Mrs. Brown's occupancy permit. That may not be easy, said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

He said city zoning allows "any legal retail establishment" where Mrs. Brown intends to open her shop, which she describes on her permit as a "gift shop" selling condoms and other items.

Her opponents also have hinted they would fight her store as a violation of the Fells Point urban renewal ordinance, which prohibits Class B bookstores.

The city defines Class B items as explicitly sexual books, magazines, videos, realistic sexual aids or anything else "patently offensive to prevailing standards" or "utterly without redeeming social importance for young persons."

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