Is Vegas native Nenna Joiner the next Hugh Hefner?
The entrepreneur envisions an empire of sex-positivity
Wed, Oct 26, 2011 (3:30 p.m.)
Photo: J.P. Dobrin
When it comes to leaving a mark on the adult industry, Las Vegas native and sex-positive entrepreneur Nenna Joiner is used to rolling the dice and taking a gamble. And so far it’s paying off. Earlier this year, Joiner, 36, opened Feelmore, an adult store and gallery in downtown Oakland, California, that caters primarily—although not exclusively—to people of color, a group that’s traditionally existed in the margins of the adult industry, both as entrepreneurs and consumers.
Joiner graduated from Valley High School in 1993 and grew up in a retail family. Her grandmother, Rita Maxey, was one of the first black women on Las Vegas’ west side to own several businesses, and from the time Joiner was young, her after-school activities included counting money and paying attention to inventory at her grandmother’s grocery stores. While business acumen may have run in her blood, access to strong representations of sexually empowered women was hardly a mainstay of her experience growing up in Las Vegas.
That changed when Joiner moved to the Bay Area in the late 1990s. Her aunt, who worked for the San Francisco AIDS Project, suggested that Joiner pay a visit to the legendary Good Vibrations retail store in Berkeley. “I went down there and loved it,” Joiner tells me. “But what really brought me to this idea of opening a store of my own is that every time I went there, I wouldn’t see anything that really represented me. All the empowered images were of white women. Being a black female, I wondered, ‘Where are we?’”
Joiner realized there was a need in her community for more diverse sexual images and resources. “People always ask, ‘Why a sex store?’” Joiner says. “I just thought Oakland was really lacking. I could’ve taken my money and done other things with it, but I saw a need. Sometimes I think you really need to look around your community and see what the true need is.”
Joiner developed a business plan, painstakingly researched Oakland’s zoning ordinances and began looking for a commercial space—a process that took about five years. Banks, she quickly learned, are unwilling to lend money to adult-oriented businesses; and many landlords are wary of leasing space to sex-related enterprises. But Joiner was undeterred. While she waited for the various pieces to fall into place, she met Good Vibrations’ founder, Joani Blank, who became a mentor. She completed 60 hours of human sexuality training at San Francisco Sex Information, more than most medical students receive, and eventually found a landlord who understood her vision.
Today, Feelmore is located in a former wig shop just down the block from Oakland’s historic Fox Theater and directly next door to Rocsil’s shoe store, which specializes in hard-to-find shoe sizes for women. The space—part art gallery, part adult store, part community resource center—is so aesthetically stunning that at first blush it could easily pass as a trendy boutique. There’s erotic art on the walls, colorful vibrators on the shelves and hard-to-find collectibles and memorabilia, from old Playboy mailers and vintage condom machine ads to rare books and vinyl LPs that reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of Oakland.
For Joiner, “inclusiveness” is more than just a buzz word; it’s the very foundation of her business. Yet building a brand that moves beyond the either/or categories that define much of the adult entertainment industry—male or female, black or white—requires an extremely mindful and strategic approach. “You don’t just throw lube and dildos at this community,” Joiner tells me. “The goal of the business is to make everyone feel safe, regardless of what you look like or who you are.”
Feelmore’s vintage inventory, and the nostalgia it can conjure up, becomes an entry point for older customers to talk about sex, intimacy and relationships. “The other night Sarah Vaughan was playing, and a couple was dancing in the store,” she says. “That’s really powerful for people to see that from the street. I definitely sell the store to people who might be apprehensive about it from the vintage perspective.”
And Joiner emphasizes that the Feelmore brand is not just about commerce, but about serving the community, in Oakland and beyond. The store has hosted sex-education workshops, porn screenings and art shows. It also sponsors an ongoing business seminar that brings Bay Area entrepreneurs in to discuss the best ways to get a product to market. Speakers have included a GLBT greeting card maker and a company that makes floggers out of inner tubes.
The possibilities for extending the Feelmore brand seem endless; plans include developing a condom line, sponsoring a tennis classic and hosting a female comedy show. And the list goes on. For Joiner, Feelmore isn’t just sex; it’s a lifestyle.
“I’m looking to have a lasting impact on this industry,” she tells me. “I want to be able to create products and influence the market. I’m looking to pull a Hugh Hefner.”