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Condom Nation



It's a lazy Sunday afternoon. You could be browsing through your New York Times, standing in line for Batman Returns, or doing a little shopping.

How about starting with condoms?

"Hey, I just gotta tell you. I think your windows are great," says a gangly young man of 19 or so who sticks his head through the door of Taboo Tabou, one of Chicago's first condom shops, at 852 W. Belmont. "Do you do them yourself?"

"No," replies one of the two women behind the counter. "We have a designer."

The carpeted display case overflows with a wild profusion of lacy violet garter belts and teddies, with color-coordinated packages of condoms sprinkled like confetti.

The fellow, like others who file through, is wearing this summer's uniform--Doc Martens, baggy shorts, and backward baseball cap. Chamber music plays in the background, and customers pore over the wares as if they were thumbing CDs at Rose Records.

"We used to get a lot of harassment here," confides a salesperson. "Guys would come in and make dumb remarks. That's why we're trying to change our image and make it more romantic. People had been taking this place as a joke."

So Taboo Tabou, which has been open since October, moved the filmy lingerie up front, relegated the nail-studded halters and leather harnesses to the back, junked the greeting-card section altogether, and beefed up security. The salesperson, who used to work at the Lingerie Factory down at Clark and Diversey, says a change in clientele is apparent, and the harassment factor is definitely down.

"We're always going to have to have the bondage stuff, because of the neighborhood," she says. "But we want this to be a place where a woman can be comfortable and take responsibility for safe sex."

In the back of the store, a young woman is taking responsibility for a braided black leather whip, which she cracks against the pickled pine floor. "I want this, I want this," she whines to her boyfriend. "Could you give me some money?"

"Your mom will love that," he replies. "She can use it to get Navajo off the couch."

"Aren't you going to get anything?" a woman carrying a Gap bag asks a girlfriend.

"Uh-uh," says the friend, shaking her head. "We're married. We don't have sex."

It's Friday night at Condom Knowledge, at 1921 N. Halsted, and store manager Marc Hoffman is explaining the relative merits of Rough Riders to a couple on a date. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with Teddy Roosevelt.

Three months ago, Marc's father Joel Hoffman and Randy Canter, two businessmen from the northern suburbs, visited the New York City anchor store of the wildly successful Condomania chain and decided to develop a Chicago spin-off. They're hoping that condom shops will be the great franchise success story of the 90s, right up there with rental videos, Domino's pizza, and $8 haircuts.

But Canter and the Hoffmans are not alone in their quest to do for condoms what Mrs. Fields has done for the chocolate chip cookie. In the Lakeview area there's also Condomplation, which opened in October at 3336 N. Lincoln. Condomplation is exploring the possibility of merging with Condomania to develop a Chicago link in the nationwide chain, according to store manager Chad Tompolis. "All these other stores are popping up, and we don't think they're doing it right," he says. "We have a long-term commitment--we want to be the McDonald's of condoms."

And what better to market in the 90s than condoms? Everything here is prepackaged, hygienic, and affordable. Most packets of condoms sell in the two-to-four-dollar range. The status conscious can browse to their heart's content, while the harried can grab and run.

More like a greeting-card shop than those seedy places that used to line South State Street, the ambience is deliberately low-key. Besides the 20-foot wall of condoms, there are gag gifts, cards, posters, a smattering of G-rated erotica, and some innocuous costume jewelry.

"This is obviously a family-oriented place," says Marc Hoffman, pointing to a yuppie couple who inexplicably have a set of in-laws in tow. Condom Knowledge also has an educational section with racks of free brochures on AIDS, chlamydia, and the like--just so no one gets too carried away. "It's a very important part of the shop," Marc explains.

Marc, a junior at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, approaches his task as condom expert with the seriousness of someone fitting arch supports. Quite a few customers are female, he says. "I have to ask them whether their boyfriends are well endowed and what they really want out of a condom." He admits that most women have never thought about it.

"Have a good evening and enjoy your purchase," he says, ringing up a sale. While the Glo's fluorescent French tickler is the store's best seller, the most exotic (and expensive) condom in the joint is the bright green Japanese Sagami, which Marc describes as "shorter than average, but strong, sensitive, and flexible."

It sounds like someone I wouldn't mind going out with.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steven D. Arazmus.

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