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Good Vibrations Founder Joani Blank, Feminist Pioneer and Vibrator Designer, Has Died

Journalist Laura Miller, who worked at the first Mission store, remembers the early days.

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Joani Blank, who helped make the world safe for pleasure-seeking women, founded San Francisco's hometown sex-toy store. She also designed vibrators, including the Butterfly.

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Blank in 2015.

Photo: Cody Pickens

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Joani Blank, who introduced San Francisco to the concept of the frank, non-skeezy sex shop when she opened the first Good Vibrations in 1977, died on Saturday. She was 79. Blank’s daughter, Amika Sergejev, wrote on Facebook that her mother had only been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June and quickly “got down to business and handled logistics and preparations.” In the days before her death, Blank and her family held a “celebration of life” in lieu of a funeral.  

Today, Good Vibrations is a small empire in the Bay Area, with seven shops (plus the one in Brookline, Massachusetts), but in 1988, when journalist Laura Miller worked there, it was a sleepy Mission district shop. “It was almost never busy, except on weekends,” says Miller, who went on to cofound Salon and is now a New York–based literary critic. “We’d have these long conversations with the customers. It felt like meaningful work—answering questions for people that they felt they couldn’t ask their doctors.”

Before founding Good Vibrations, Blank had worked in the sex counseling program at UCSF (the homework: learning to masturbate) and founded small publisher Down There Press. But vibrators weren’t easy to come by—you had to brave a sleazy adult bookstore or take a chance on something in the back of a magazine. “The places to get them were pretty icky,” Blank told San Francisco last year.  

With $4,000 in savings, she opened the first Good Vibrations in a 200-square-foot storefront in the Mission. It was the second feminist vibrator store in the U.S. (Manhattan’s Eve’s Garden had, er, come first, in 1974.) “But Eve’s Garden didn’t let men in, or they had to be with a woman,” remembers Miller. “That shop was about the idea that women needed to be protected from men when they were exploring their sexuality. Our market was women, but we welcomed men into the store.” 

The Good Vibrations sales approach was one of radical unflappability. “The model was always to treat every question or concern that customers had, and everything they were interested in, as perfectly normal and wholesome, and to give them plenty of information,” says Miller. No hokey gimmicks, air quotes, or euphemisms about “massage.” Blank also placed a big emphasis on quality control, turning down cheap plastic or rubber products that broke down or just got…gross. Their No. 1 seller? The Hitachi Magic Wand. Blank was also a vibrator designer in her own right, devising the strap-on butterfly model.

Thanks to her selectivity, Good Vibrations became an outlet for “a lot of the first sort of entrepreneurial people to make high-quality sex toys,” remembers Miller, “and they were usually run by women.” (Miller’s main association with the first store was a pervasive odor of vanilla, the scent wafting off a line of high-quality pastel dildos. “I’d walk in there and get hungry and want to eat cookies,” she says, laughing.)

Miller’s job was in advertising and publicity. Getting into the local press was easy (“All the alt weeklies wanted to do a story about something happening at a vibrator store”), but placing ads in national magazines was trickier. Harper’s accepted ads (tagline: “Sex toys, books, and videos that won’t insult your intelligence), as did Utne Reader. The New Yorker did not. “It was a weird line to walk,” says Miller.

A few years into Miller’s stint at Good Vibrations, Blank decided to “give the business away” to her workers. She transitioned the parent business, Open Enterprises, to a worker-owned and operated cooperative. Decisions were made by vote, there were committees to handle parts of the business, and people generally knew how much their colleagues made. “She was a really inclusive person—she would make you feel like you were part of something instantly,” says Miller. “She was very invested in socially conscious business models.” 

In 2006, years after Blank left, Good Vibrations switched back to a traditional business structure, and in 2007, under pressure from online competition, it sold itself to midwestern adult empire GVA-TWN. The following year, GVA executive Joel Kaminsky bought the business himself and hired one of the original worker-owners, Jackie Rednour-Bruckman, to run it.

Today, Good Vibrations feels downright mainstream, and that acceptance is the result of the conversation Blank and her staff started back in 1977, with each customer who walked in the door. “It’s hard to understand now because these things are so widely accepted—people talk about vibrators on TV—but it was something people had shame about and was kind of unmentionable,” says Miller. Or, as Blank put it to San Francisco last year, “When celebrities start talking about their expensive vibrators, it’s good for everybody.”

 

Update, 8/15/16: This story has been updated to acknowledge the current owner of Good Vibrations, Joel Kaminsky, who bought it in 2008. We regret the omission.


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