Clinton Hill sex shop controversy climaxes — a second time

A supporter of Romantic Depot holds a sign at a rally supporting the em-porn-ium as opponents seek to have it removed from Clinton Hill.
Photo by Ben Brachfeld

The Clinton Hill sex shop at the center of a stiff neighborhood controversy will engage in dialogue with concerned local residents, after a planned protest of the shop was met by a hot-and-heavy crowd of counterprotesters resisting their would-be cockblockers.

Brooklyn Paper prematurely declared the situation to have climaxed on Wednesday, after neighborhood residents made clear at an 88th Precinct Community Council meeting their hopes to evict Romantic Depot from its new location at Fulton Street and Washington Avenue, the sexy metro area chain’s first retail outlet in Kings County.

In reality, the situation climaxed on Friday morning, when the planned protest by concerned locals, to be led by the Rev. Kevin McCall, was significantly outnumbered by supporters of the store, holding signs with messages such as “Romantic Depot is the Brooklyn Way” and “Make Love, Not War” while folding firm in their defense of the new shop.

McCall and Romantic Depot regional managing director Glenn Buzzetti said they had reached an agreement for the business to engage in constructive community dialogue with local residents after arriving on the corner, formerly a check-cashing store, on Valentine’s Day last month with little prior notice.

Romantic Depot managing director Glenn Buzzetti and the Rev. Kevin McCall hash out their differences. Photo by Ben Brachfeld

“We met with him with open dialogue. The resolution we came to is we’re gonna be in communication, to have a sitdown with the residents and with the community and with the clergy, to see what may be able to come out of this,” McCall told Brooklyn Paper after speaking with Buzzetti. “I let him know my concerns, in terms of community concerns, in terms of him just popping up — even though it’s not required by law, he should’ve still just came to the community. He’s willing to talk, so let’s see how the future dialogue happens.”

The store has already started to address community concerns, painting over a mural of Biggie Smalls, the legendary late rapper who grew up in Clinton Hill, after locals argued that the use of his image was disrespectful to the “Juicy” artist’s legacy. Biggie, who grew up around the corner on St. James Place, was slain by an unknown assailant 25 years ago this month, and has since become one of the borough’s most enduring icons.

“There were complaints,” Buzzetti told Brooklyn Paper. “And we’d like to be good neighbors.”

Nonetheless, Buzzetti says that one of the central claims brought forth by opponents, that his store is in violation of city zoning code as an adult establishment within 500 feet of two churches and a mosque, has been officially declared limp and flaccid. He said that agents with the Department of Buildings came to inspect the site Thursday night, and after an exhaustive search had declared the store a retail establishment rather than an adult venue.

Supporters of Romantic Depot rally at the new Clinton Hill location.Photo by Ben Brachfeld

“Last night for an hour, they inspected every single corner, every single part of the building,” Buzzetti said. “And they gave us the results this morning, that the store was deemed as definitely non-adult usage and that the city has no right in shutting us down. And we’re a normal, taxpaying business and there’s gonna be no shutdown of our business. And we’re humble in that decision, but we’re also still respectful of the community and we’re not gonna throw it in their face at all.”

While the store sells all manner of dildos, vibrators, buttplugs, sex dolls, BDSM gear, and other sexy merchandise, it’s able to skirt Giuliani-era zoning ordinances for adult establishments since it does not sell pornographic movies or put on sex shows. He noted that it is perfectly legal to sell the items on the store’s ground-floor level, like condoms, lingerie, or sexy candy, to minors, but that they actively choose not to. The naughtier items the store keeps in the basement, such as full-on, realistic-to-the-touch recreations of a woman’s pubic area, are fully out of reach for curious youngsters.

Reached for comment, a representative from the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, Colby Hamilton, confirmed that OSE and DOB had conducted an inspection and determined the store was a retail, rather than adult, establishment, meaning the store is in compliance with the zoning ordinance.

Still, opponents say that the store is not in keeping with the neighborhood’s “family” environment, and argue that the zoning code should be changed to more closely hue to the last 20 years of evolution in the sex industry.

“It’s not a retail shop, it’s a sex shop. It’s an adult establishment,” said Suzanne DeBrango, a Clinton Hill resident and president of the WaGreene Neighborhood Association (a portmanteau of Washington and Greene avenues). “If you have to be 18 years of age or older to enter, it’s an adult establishment. It’s not a retail shop. Any retail shop here on Fulton, a child would be welcome. A child could not go into this store because it’s an adult establishment, so the zoning is incorrect, that’s what we’re gonna fight.”

The opponents mostly qualify their remarks by noting they’re not “against sex” or anti-LGBTQ, as supporters have contended, nor are they trying to put the store’s employees out of a job, but that they would rather see the store move to a lower-foot-traffic area with fewer kids, citing Atlantic Avenue in particular.

A mannequin on display at Romantic DepotPhoto by Ben Brachfeld

In the face of organized opposition, Buzzetti said that the company has been collecting petition signatures in support of the store, and said that they had garnered over 400 signatures, outpacing the opponents. He said that he had only found out about the protest the previous night, and got supporters from the area and around the city to show up by putting out a call to action on Instagram.

Some of Romantic Depot’s other locations, including in the Bronx and Westchester, advertised the rally by promising supporting attendees a $25 gift card. But the community remains divided on the issue, with plenty outside the store’s orbit voicing their support, arguing that thriving commerce is better than what the site used to bear.

“This was, for a long time, a payday lender, and then it was a vacant storefront. And for years, people worried about social disorder around this corner” said Dominic Holden, a resident of Lefferts Place. “But what we see now is we have a thriving, active, local company bringing activity to the street, and supporting our local economy. It’s preposterous to suggest that people in any community don’t have sex, and it is clearly serving a demand that people have.”