Scott Nishimura email@example.com
It says something about sex that sales are up 20 percent annually at The Velvet Box these days, and owner Marcelle LeBlanc says they could do better.
But The Velvet Box – a Fort Worth retailer that sells a well-curated selection of lingerie, books, games, adult toys, massage oils, lubricants, condoms, and bath items out of three polished boutiques – has finally emerged from three years of litigation over whether its first store, at Alliance Town Center, was operating illegally as a sexually oriented business.
In October, The Velvet Box settled in mediation with its Alliance landlord, the Sam Moon Trading Co., which had leased to LeBlanc. A year earlier, LeBlanc settled with Alliance, after a state district judge ruled The Velvet Box was operating in violation of its lease covenants as an SOB. The Velvet Box had local authorities on its side: the Fort Worth Police had run vice officers to the store, and declared it wasn’t violating the city’s SOB ordinance.
“We’ve got three stores for the price of four,” said LeBlanc, estimating the litigation essentially cost the company the $300,000 expense of outfitting one of its new stores before inventory.
But LeBlanc, who celebrated her fifth year in business in September, is happy to be out of court.
“For a while, we were spinning our wheels,” she said. “The money was coming in, and it was going out.”
LeBlanc moved the Alliance store to new leased quarters on Northeast Tarrant Parkway nearby in far North Fort Worth. In 2012, she’d bought a building in Fort Worth’s West Seventh corridor for her second store. And she subsequently opened in City View in southwest Fort Worth for her third store.
These days, LeBlanc says she’s on the lookout for new opportunities. She’s driven the new Chisholm Trail.
“There may be some opportunity,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of shopping centers are going to come up in that area.”
And she’s interested in opening a gay and lesbian version of The Velvet Box on Fort Worth’s eccentric Near Southside.
Earlier this year, she found what she says was an ideal location near the Rainbow Lounge gay bar in the Near Southside’s nascent gay district. She sought and received the support of the Fort Worth South economic development nonprofit. But opposition quietly emerged, and the landlord declined.
“I don’t know how we can make it any gayer,” LeBlanc says.
LeBlanc, who says she’s prepared to open an LGBT store if she can get the location, says her other stores are “too girly and straight” and it makes sense to open a separate LGBT store.
LeBlanc, who bought the West Seventh building after being shunned by landlords in the district, says she wants to lease.
“I would prefer not to buy up all the buildings just to get a place,” she said.
LeBlanc is also aggressively working on growing her business internally. Her regular twice-monthly classes, typically headlined by Beth Boatman, whose @SexConsultants Twitter feed says she specializes in “providing answers to private questions in a sex positive and straightforward way,” typically sell out, she says.
“My best-selling class is ‘Oral Sex for Him’,” she says. “It sells out in a couple of days, and it’s full of women.”
At 12 participants per class and $100 per place, all students have a personal station with mirror. Among the techniques Boatman teaches: putting a condom on a man without using hands.
“The older ones will just smoke it,” LeBlanc says.
The Velvet Box and its 12 employees view themselves as in the business of helping their customers lead better, healthier sex lives, and the classes delve into the science of sexual response.
Evolving technology has continued to help develop the business, including USB chargers and medical silicon that’s gone into today’s adult toys. The popular We Vibe couples vibrator has an app that allows remote control via WIFI.
Technology has “allowed us to be the business we are now,” LeBlanc says.
LeBlanc, who has a Dallas business partner who runs adult stores throughout Texas, has also continued to nurture her community profile, joining the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce a few years ago, hosting chamber events, and contributing giveaways. Earlier this year, she hosted a celebrity cook off between Mayor Betsy Price and Reata chef Juan Rodriguez at Central Market to benefit the Aids Outreach Center, a charity The Velvet Box supports continuously.
LeBlanc also has also joined Women Steering Business, a Fort Worth group that raises money to buy livestock from young women exhibitors at the Fort Worth Stock Show’s annual Sale of Champions.
And she estimates she gives away $20,000 worth of merchandise annually to charity auctions, including the Boys & Girls Clubs, The Parenting Center, and various school PTAs.
Above all, LeBlanc says The Velvet Box remains mindful of its largely conservative customer base among women.
“They do want to buy,” she says. “They just don’t want (the store) in your face.”
Still LeBlanc, who declines to say what her sales are, has to work at finding locations and getting brokers interested.
“They don’t understand our concept,” LeBlanc says. “People are afraid to gamble. It’s scary for some people, because it has to do with sex. It’s frightening.”