20 Years of Babeland

In 1993, Rachel Venning and Claire Cavanah started quite a buzz

When Babeland co-founders Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning met at a Seattle potluck in the late ‘80s, they had no idea it would lead to a successful business venture that would change how people of all genders explore their sexuality.

“We were both new in town and I always felt the stars had aligned,” Cavanah said. “Neither one of us knows who hosted the dinner party, but we still know each other.”

They became fast friends, bonding over their similar feminist and queer activist backgrounds. Both had studied gender in college. And they were both struck by the lack of resources available for women to learn more about buying a vibrator or test-driving strap-ons. One day, as they griped about the lack of women-friendly sex toy stores in the area, it dawned on them to do it on their own.

“It was like, ‘bam’,” Venning said. “It came together really quickly from that point. We were lucky because we didn’t know that much and we didn’t have much to lose. We were able to just go for it.”

Two decades later, the founders are reveling in their baby’s  success. With four stores—three in New York City and one in Seattle—Babeland has managed to create a sex-positive phenomenon: a successful brick and mortar presence as well as a popular e-commerce website. The company is planning yearlong festivities including multiple parties—with an especially big one in September, the month of their anniversary.

A Brief Look Back

Babeland was founded under the name Toys in Babeland in Seattle back in 1993. Their mission was to provide information and encouragement to women who wanted to explore their sexuality, and to offer top quality products in a supportive environment. They began with a brick-and-mortar shop, and then added a mail order business with a print magazine based out of the store in 1995. Their website, babeland.com, launched in 1996, first as an online ‘zine offering sex advice and then as a fledgling e-commerce destination.

Cavanah and Venning did their research before jumping in headfirst. They found a supportive mentor in Joani Blank, the founder of Good Vibrations in San Francisco. To this day, Cavanah said the best encouragement she received from Blank was that ‘any city of any size at all can support a female-friendly sex positive toy store.’ “I carried that with me,” she said.

While Blank believed in Babeland’s potential for success, Cavanah and Venning’s friends and community were skeptical.

Before they opened their first store, Venning and Cavanah created a survey and brought it to the oldest lesbian bar in Seattle, the Wild Rose, to solicit feedback. The answers were surprisingly negative, with responders actually calling them “crazy.”

“We were a little ahead of our time, perhaps,” Venning admitted. “We were in love with our idea, so we had to get out there and get our vision across. We started promoting it, taking out ads and handing out flyers. It took more of that than we anticipated.”

Still, despite the discouraging survey results, “we didn’t have a lot to lose,” Cavanah said. “We were up for an adventure and we saw the potential.”

Venning and Cavanah opened their second store in 1998 in the Lower East Side and another store in SoHo in 2003. A short-lived Los Angeles location failed to get off the ground because it lacked a parking lot (a real retail killer in L.A.!). In 2008, Babeland opened a new location in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

They have had to deal with reluctant neighbors on occasion. Finding landlords who understand what Venning and Cavanah wanted to build has been rare. When they moved to Rivington Street in the Lower East Side, for instance, they had to forge cordial relations with the synagogue across the street. While the rabbi didn’t push them away, Venning and Cavanah did have to tone down their cheeky window displays.

Building a Community-Based Brand

The desire to create a good work environment is woven into the culture of the business because of Venning and Cavanah’s own experiences working crappy jobs. As a result, they strive to create a place where their 55 employees can explore their identity and sexuality while having fun.

Venning and Cavanah recognize their employees are a major reason for their success and brand recognition. They place a high value on excellence and support each other company-wide to “kick ass at our jobs,” Venning said. Employees are also featured with bios on the Babeland website highlighting individual interests and sexual proclivities.

Early on, Cavanah and Venning sought to build a warm and friendly boutique that would make people feel comfortable. But it wasn’t always easy, especially with limited resources. Inspired by the inside of a jewelry store, Cavanah and Venning covered up a not-so-pretty ceiling with a copper wire project that kept them up for days.

“It’s been a theme for us with every store,” Venning laughed. “We have these highly ambitious aesthetic goals that involve us staying up until four in the morning trying not to cry while we get it done!”

In 2005, the business partners decided to change their company name from Toys in Babeland to Babeland and launched a rebranding. It was Venning’s idea to refresh their image to stay current and visible, and because many people confused Toys in Babeland with the punk band Babes in Toyland. The original logo also needed tweaking.

They hired a marketing firm and, for Venning and Cavanah, it was a total Don Draper moment. They fell in love with the shortened moniker ‘Babeland’ and the new logo depicting plus and minus signs with circles. “It was like jumping off the high dive,” recalled Cavanah).

They were initially concerned it would be seen as too binary by their customers, when their own beliefs around gender were fluid. But with time, the idea proved to have legs and they moved forward with the new image.

Babeland also values being a part of the community they serve. They often partner and give products to organizations such as the Vagina Monologues, the Audre Lorde Project, Queers for Economic Justice, Ali Forney Center and Young Survival Coalition. More recently, Babeland formed a partnership with A is For, a new reproductive rights organization that serves as an ally and advocate for reproductive rights. They are launching a variety of products where a portion of the proceeds will go to the organization.

Staying engaged with their customers, Venning and Cavanah co-authored a popular book, Moregasm: Babeland’s Guide to Mind-Blowing Sex in 2009. They also regularly answer questions about sex on their website in an Ask Rachel & Claire column and they both tweet at @BabelandVulva. On their website, they blog about the company’s 20 game-changing toys, “Babeland’s Best.”

The Future is Bright

Today, Babeland’s mission is virtually the same as it was two decades ago. The company cultivates an honest, open and fun environment where encouraging personal empowerment, community education and support for a more passionate world are key.

Their customers are diverse and include everybody from old school dykes and young genderqueers to straight couples, including men. “In our [initial] naivety, we thought sex toy [stores] were already serving men, but they weren’t,” Cavanah said. “That became clear to us very, very quickly.”

“I feel like things have gotten a lot better,” Venning said. “The level of information that women have about sexuality and their bodies is much greater. Twenty years ago we were talking more about how to have an orgasm if you’ve never had one, where your g-spot and clitoris are, more anatomy kind of stuff. Now that information is much more widely understood.”

Though our culture still grapples with negativity around bodies and all types of ideals, Venning and Cavanah said people are feeling safer exploring their desire, especially with the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey.

“As queer people we have been in a really good position to be sex educators because so many people who come out have to wrestle with sexuality issues that straight people don’t have to deal with at the same level,” Venning said.

Cavanah now handles Babeland’s public relations and brand growth, while Venning addresses business opportunities and other day-to-day issues. After 20 years, it’s hard for one to imagine the company without the other.

“All these years it’s been my long term relationship,” Cavanah laughed. “I used to joke before gay marriage became such a domino effect that we were more married to each other than we could be to our girlfriends or partners, legally speaking. It is a marriage in a lot of ways. I feel so lucky.”

What Do You Think?