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For Valentine's Day, stir up romance at a fraction of the cost thanks to these bold entrepreneurs

Self-Starters

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Valentine's Day, or so advertising has taught us, is a time to practice the ultimate seduction. On the evening of Feb. 14, a man will whip out his package, exposing a gift that will cause his lady's jaw to drop and her mouth to water with its majestic size and exquisite shape: a diamond. Besides jewelry, we've heard all about the aphrodisiac properties of flowers, chocolate, oyster dinners, candles and massage coupons. But the more direct route to passion remains rarely mentioned, if frequently explored.

Nashville's neighborhoods are dotted with sex shops that supply the raw materials for romance, at a fraction of Kay Jewelers' prices. But despite their popularity, these retailers haven't quite reached mainstream acceptance: Vibrators and fuzzy handcuffs are more often punchlines than topics of serious discussion. So I was curious: Who's shopping at the area's purveyors of fine adult products? What are they buying? And where should the would-be gift giver bring their dildo dollar?

My first research trip was to Ava's Adult World on Charlotte Avenue. The store's interior is utilitarian, with low-hanging acoustic-tile ceiling and blacked-out windows that create the illusion of darkness at noon. Alternative rock plays on Sirius XM. The staff is skilled at the art of not being the first to make eye contact.

A first-time shopper will be bewildered by the wealth of options: a huge selection of vibrators, dildos, blowup dolls, anal beads, penis pumps — more dildos, but this time they're for your ass, and lube. While most of the products are middle-of-the-road, the eye is drawn to extremes: an 18-inch dildo; Doc Johnson's Ass Master butt plug, 4.5 inches in diameter (diameter!) for $41.95. If you need a gag gift, you might consider Captain Pecker the Party Wrecker, a hilarious 6-foot inflatable cock at $21.95.

Product diversity is central to the store's business strategy, along with competitive pricing. Kyle McCord, the manager, explains, "Nobody in the state can touch us on price. ... We're kinda like the Wal-Mart of porn." Customers are "all kinds," male and female, gay and straight, from college students to mother-daughter pairs to married couples in their 60s and 70s. It's the latter, he says, who "spend the most money, buy the craziest stuff." The store draws them all in with a non-threatening atmosphere: "We're trying real hard not to be the seedy little sex shop on the side of the road."

That's not to say that untoward incidents never happen. McCord tells the story of one VIP customer who bought a "massive" rubber dong, then tried to return it the next night. "He puts this dick up on the counter ... about this deep in the side of the thing are teeth marks. Somebody had took a bite out of this thing. And the package is clear, you can tell there's like water beading up on the inside of it, you could tell it had like lube and stuff on it. But there was this bite mark on the side of it! I mean like a chunk! And he was dead set on trying to convince me he bought it like that!"

When it first opened, the store faced disapproval from propriety-minded Sylvan Park residents. "There was a guy that used to protest out front," McCord says. "Every Saturday, he had a sign. We started going out there, offering him coffee, things like that, and he finally quit coming. But honestly, everybody that complains about it, they're up here after dark."

Most expensive item: Blowup dolls, about $300.

Most popular item: Slimline G-spot vibe, $12.99.

Biggest draw: Price, selection.

A different vibe (heh!) prevails at Hustler Hollywood on Church Street. The soundtrack is pounding hip-hop, and the store's extensively pierced and tattoed employees are quick to offer help. The customer is overwhelmed not by dildo variety, but by a profusion of novelty items — corsets, shot glasses, baby onesies, rhinestone chokers that say SLUT, MILF and COUGAR. In the stripper-shoe section, rhinestone-encrusted platforms are $149.99. Larry Flynt's autobiography is $22.95.

Two tables covered in red and pink products (women's erotica, chocolate body dessert) show that the store is more than ready for Valentine's Day. There are instructional books, of which the most unfortunately titled is The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Oral Sex ($9.99). Many couples browse around; an employee explains the difference between water-based and silicone-based lube to two women.

The staff can't give interviews without approval from the corporate office, but one clerk goes off the record to offer a theory for the store's success. It's spacious, and people appreciate "a well-lit store, in an open area."

Most expensive item: LELO YVA 18k gold-plated massager, $1200.

Most popular item: WeVibe flexible G-spot vibrator, $119.99.

Biggest draw: Great gift ideas, fun ambience.

The archetypal seedy sex shop on the corner is much decried. But when I enter a store that might fit that description, the feel inside is more cozy than creepy. Jenna's Toybox on Dickerson Pike has a snazzy purple-and-green color scheme and hole-in-the-wall interior. The grandmotherly woman who's working when I first enter is voluble on the subject of journalists who misrepresent their business. Channel 2 was here just yesterday: "They always try to say we bring violence and crime to the neighborhood. We sell adult products to adults."

It's clear that getting grief from self-appointed moral authorities is universal in this business, but I can't muster up much disapproval for Jenna's selection. Along with the usual marital aids — a waterproof Jack Rabbit is $59.99 — is an array of objects you never expect to see — perhaps never imagined could exist.

A selection of erotic board games ("The Seven Answers of Highly Horny People," $29.99) has a retro, Mad Magazine feel. A Clone-A-Pussy molding kit is $37.95. There's an Erotic Love Piggie Inflatable Party Pig for $9.99. A selection of '70s-era Penthouses and Romanian-language Hustlers is $3.99 each, buy one get one free — one of the best bargains I've seen yet.

Most expensive item: Sex swings, about $140.

Most popular item: Clearly Sensual vibrating cock ring, 26.99.

Biggest draws: $10 DVDs, the lure of the unexpected, poppers.

Nashville's suppliers of adult novelties, personal massagers and triple-X DVDs don't get much respect. But that doesn't seem likely to dent their business any time soon. And one of these stores is probably selling what your sweetheart — or your friend with benefits, or you — really wants for Valentine's Day. McCord puts it best. "When you look at the divorce rate and stuff nowadays, if more couples, especially married people, would open up to a lot of what we do over here, all that would stop," he says. "If people aren't happy at home, it's 'cause they're not willing to experiment. Life's too short not to have a good time."

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