New adult shop arouses suspicion at City Hall
Variety is the specialty at Medusas on Monroe Avenue.
The shelves on one side of the store carry handmade purses, paintings, and jewelry by local artisans.
Lining the walls on the other side of the store are multicolored dildos, butt plugs, ball gags, spanking paddles, and other sex toys. Lingerie takes up much of the floor space.
“Our goal is to be like a boutique,” said Kristy Gavel, one of two co-owners of Medusas, which opened at the corner of Union Street in late October. “Like a clean, safe space for anybody.”
She called the shop “Hot Topic for grown-ups,” a reference to the retail chain popular with teenagers that specializes in counterculture-related clothing and accessories.
But what a Rochester police officer who walked into the store on Wednesday saw was an illegal sex shop.
He handed Medusas other co-owner, Randy Gill, a copy of the city code related to “sexually oriented businesses” and wrote him a summons to appear at the Code Violations Bureau to explain why he and Gavel were operating without a license.
“We’re unlicensed because we don’t need a license,” Gavel later said.
At the turn of the century, the city vigorously overhauled its zoning laws to regulate businesses whose business was sex. A mayoral task force was formed. Consultants were hired. Studies were conducted.
The result was a new chapter of the city code that for the first time defined a variety of “sexually oriented businesses” — from “adult arcades” to “adult retail stores” — and established a licensing procedure for them. The law also outlined where they could exist and reasons for the limits.
“Sexually oriented businesses lend themselves to ancillary unlawful and unhealthy activities that are not properly controlled by the operators of the establishments,” one section of the law read.
The city has not issued a “sexually oriented business” license since the adoption of the law in 2000. The law effectively zoned most of those businesses out of existence within much of the city limits, including where Medusas is located.
Exceptions were made for businesses that were grandfathered in when the law was passed. Today, there are four such businesses, according to the city. Three of them are strip clubs, and the fourth is Show World, an adult toy and novelty store on Mt. Read Boulevard. All of them are required to renew their licenses annually.
Gavel and Gill argue that they do not need a license for Medusas because their shop does not meet the law’s definition of an “adult retail store.”
The law, however, defines such a store as one that meets any of five criteria, including devoting more than 40 percent of its stock and display space to “sexually oriented materials.”
Gavel and Gill assert that “sexually oriented materials” make up less than 10 percent of Medusas’s inventory. Most of their stock, they argue, is composed of “novelty items.”
City spokesperson Barbara Pierce said city zoning officials explained the nuances of the law to Gavel and Gill before Medusas opened last year.
Now, she said, they have two options: scale back their inventory of sexually oriented material to less than 40 percent of their stock and remain in business on Monroe Avenue with a license for what is known as a “limited adult retail store,” or apply for a license to operate elsewhere in the city.
The latter would limit Medusas to a handful of streets far outside the downtown core.
“If they cooperate and work within the limitations of code and have a permit, if they are operating appropriately in their location, everything would be fine,” Pierce said. “If they are not, if they are operating outside of the limitations of 40 percent or more of their products, then the next step would probably be with our Law Department.”
She noted that City Hall learned of the extent of Medusas inventory after fielding an inquiry last week from WXXI News, which was preparing a feature story about the shop.
Gavel, 31, and Gill, 33, argue that the law was written for another time, when “adult retail stores” were associated with the sale of X-rated magazines and movies and backroom video peep shows.
Medusas, on the other hand, sells sex toys that retail for as much as $1,200. The shop, which has a slogan of “Body positive. Sex positive. Education,” hosts workshops with the Rochester Kink Society, and hands out literature from the Rochester Center for Sexual Wellness and Trillium Health promoting healthy sex lives.
“The whole objective here is to destigmatize adult stuff,” Gill said. “We think it’s unfair that people are subjected to dirty, gross-ass adult stores in the middle of nowhere when they want to go buy a gift for a friend.”