City Life

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About The Pleasure Chest* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

February 12, 2020 | by Amy Cohen

The Pleasure Chest at 2039 Walnut Street opened its doors in 1974 and is one of the longest-running small businesses in Rittenhouse Square. | Photo: Michael Bixler

I was raised in Center City during the 1970s and early 1980s and often find myself recalling the former iterations of downtown shops and restaurants. You may see TD Bank on the southeast corner of 18th and Walnut Streets, but I see Pub Tiki, a Polynesian restaurant with opaque windows that featured scenes of tropical island beaches. You may walk by H&M across Walnut Street and check out the display window’s fast fashion. I still expect to see the designer dresses of Nan Duskin. In M. Night Shaymalan’s The Sixth Sense young Cole Sear, played by actor Haley Joel Osment, memorably states, “I see dead people.” As for me, I see dead retail. 

Turnover, of course, is to be expected and can be a measure of a city’s vitality and vibrancy. However, there are a small number of holdovers from my girlhood long ago. The McDonald’s at 1706 Walnut Street has been there since the early 1970s. When the project was first proposed, neighboring retailers and some City Council members tried to block it, fearing litter, the smell, declining property values, and, no doubt, the patrons who would be drawn to the fast food giant’s first Center City location. As a kid, I delighted at the prospect of being able to buy a Quarter Pounder in my own neighborhood. My father was sure that it would signal the death of the city’s most prestigious retail block.

Two blocks west of the old Pub Tiki we find another longtime establishment. A place that, if past trends continue, will be exceedingly busy this time of year. The Pleasure Chest at 2039 Walnut Street has been in business since 1974–an eternity in retail. Located below ground level in a late 18th century brownstone, the exterior of the adult entertainment store has hardly changed since I first glimpsed it peering from a school bus window. Decades later, I finally paid the store a visit to learn how this purveyor of erotica has survived all these years. 

The store is larger than I expected. The lighting is dim. The carpet is soft. The pegboard walls are stocked with perplexing, disturbing, enticing, and amusing merchandise. I am struck by the vibrant colors of 21st century dildos, vibrators, and mystifying gadgets lining the shelves of free-standing displays. I meet Susan Mannino, and we adjourn to her small office. As we talk, I learn some of the secrets of the store’s long-term success. 

The Pleasure Chest founder Neal Evers and Nancy Bell in 1976. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The Pleasure Chest was founded by Mannino’s late husband, Neal Evers. She came on board in 1981 and has been in charge since 1985. Mannino, 63, is blonde, bespectacled, and wears a black velvet turtleneck top and khaki slacks–a self-described “school-marm” type. Not exactly what one expects of someone who has spent nearly all her adulthood selling sex paraphernalia. She is forthcoming, kind and, most of all, surprised to be receiving attention for her vocation. Trained as a nutritionist, she loves her work and is so dedicated to the store’s success that she rarely takes a vacation. “That’s why I have a garden,” she tells me with a shrug.

When The Pleasure Chest first opened, it was a showroom for erotic art, though it carried some sex toys. As the store evolved, it featured a greater variety of toys, as well as accessories, lotions, potions, costumes, contraptions and gag gifts. Items related to heterosexual, gay, lesbian, sado-masochistic, anal and oral expression were available to provide for every customer’s needs and wants. 

Timely, On-trend Merchandise

In 1987, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop advised physicians to recommend condom use as protection from HIV. Sales skyrocketed. The formerly dull latex barriers were manufactured in a variety of flavors, colors, shapes, and styles. The Pleasure Chest became the obvious place to shop for prophylactic novelties. In 1991, when Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive and retiring from basketball, condom sales soared again. The AIDS crisis also led to women becoming more interested in experiencing sexual adventures with toys rather than multiple partners.

In 1998, Sex and the City aired an episode featured much discussion about the glories of the Rabbit vibrator. The Pleasure Chest’s vibrator supply, which included the wondrous dual-functioning Rabbit, was in hot demand. In 2000, fishnet stockings became fashionable again. A Philadelphia Inquirer article touted the Pleasure Chest as a place to purchase this newly chic item, although the author cautioned, “Don’t look for fishnet pantyhose there. You’ll find only garter, suspender, and thigh-high versions.”

The Pleasure Chest’s longevity has helped dispel negative perceptions of adult toy stores in the city and, in turn, has paved the way for other local sex boutiques. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The increased popularity of bachelorette parties and the best-selling Fifty Shades of Gray series are two recent examples of how the adult store’s long-standing items can become desirable with mainstream consumers. The magenta packaging favored by the Bachelorette Party Favors brand depicts phallic party games for the bride-to-be and her BFFs–Dueling Dickies, Inflatable Pecker Ring Toss, and Dick Head Hoopla to name a few. In contrast, another wall displays handcuffs, gags, collars, blindfolds, and a leather hogtie kit in mostly black packaging from companies like Sinful, Bare, Fetish, and Kinklab.

In the age of online shopping, customers continue to come into her store, Mannino says, due to the complexity of contemporary sex toys. It requires a knowledgeable sales staff to demonstrate how things work. People who buy toys and other paraphernalia online often end up throwing them away, she says, because they can’t figure out how the devices are meant to work. Mannino likens purchasing sex toys online to buying your first smartphone without professional guidance. I was fascinated to learn about app-based devices that allow partners to interact sexually from different locations. Many of today’s sex toys are Bluetooth-enabled. 

A Woman’s Touch

Mannino is convinced that her gender is key to the store’s success. Having a female owner gives the Pleasure Chest a female-friendly vibe that sets it apart from competitors. Many employees, who go through extensive training, are women. In the early years, the clientele was a mix of gay and straight men. In the 1980s, however, women began to frequent the shop. 

In November 1980, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a lengthy story by Art Carey entitled “The Sad Plight of the Single Woman.” The high-achieving professional women Carey interviewed bemoan their inability to meet marriage-appropriate men. Carey pointed to a few reasons for their struggles: men are intimidated by successful women, and women’s liberation makes it easy for men to find sex without commitment. “The tendency to ‘play the field’ and to juggle several women at once is exacerbated by television, which perpetually tempts with an array of gorgeous women, and magazines such as Playboy which extols the hedonistic lifestyle of the swinging bachelor,” Carey wrote. “In addition, the advertising industry has trained people to value surface attributes and has fostered the notion that everything can and should be replaced by a new and better model.” We can quibble with Carey’s hypotheses, but perhaps he is correct that frustrated single women in the early 1980s sought sexual pleasure outside of partnered relationships. A 27-year-old advertising executive told Carey, “You can see some of the prettiest women in town at the Pleasure Chest upgrading their vibrators.”

A bounty of options fill this little underground store in Rittenhouse Square. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The advent of HIV/AIDS also led to an increased female interest in sex toys. As Mannino told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995, “Now there’s an honest-to-God reason to be looking at sex toys rather than multiple partners.”

The upswing in female interest in sex toys was newsworthy back then. Today, customers trend slightly more female than male. They are also racially diverse and range in age from college kids to octogenarians.

Location, Location, Location

The Pleasure Chest spent its first six months on the 2000 block of Sansom Street, a stretch I recall as being the epicenter of Center City’s early 1970s hippie scene. By March 1975, the store moved to its current address. Directly across the street sat the Wanamaker Mansion, which was demolished in 1981 and replaced with the high-rise Wanamaker House apartment building two years later. 

The Pleasure Chest maintains an ideal location for an erotica shop. Rather than opening along the 13th Street corridor that, in its pre-Midtown Village Days, was a warren of peep shows and sex shops, Walnut Street signals sophistication rather than sleaze. It is close to the heart of Center City’s upscale retail area, yet slightly removed, allowing customers relative privacy. This could also explain why one of Walnut Street’s other long-surviving establishments, the cannabis-happy head shop Wonderland, has thrived next door. 

Classy and discreet on Walnut Street. An exterior view of Pleasure Chest and Alexandria Books in 1976. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

In recent years, Pleasure Chest’s location has become even more ideal. As the University of Pennsylvania inches ever further east, college and graduate students are frequent passersby. In the past, Mannino says, students would visit her shop for pranks and gag gifts. Today, they are more committed consumers, inquiring about which gadgets will best suit their desires.

Spreading the Word

A knack for creative marketing is part of the Pleasure Chest’s DNA. In 1977, the store provided costume contest prizes for the first anniversary midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the 1980s, the store ran an ad campaign for National Secretaries Week. “Show her how much you care with a fine piece of lingerie or what else comes from the Pleasure Chest,” read the advertisement. Christmas campaigns promised “The most unusual stocking stuffers anywhere.” Ads in bridal magazines reminded readers to plan for their honeymoon. 

Keeping in mind the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the Pleasure Chest became embroiled in two newsworthy trademark infringement suits in the early 1980s. The Campbell Soup company objected to the sale of cans that, at first glance, appeared to carry the iconic Campbell’s label. On closer examination, the cans were printed with what the suit described as “gross and filthy language and expressions,” and unmentionable items inside. Unfortunately for the Pleasure Chest, the store was compelled to pull these swift sellers off the shelves. A similar controversy arose when the Walt Disney Corporation demanded that the Pleasure Chest cease and desist from selling t-shirts showing Snow White’s seven dwarves engaged in various and sundry sex acts.

Pub Tiki, Nan Duskin, and many other Walnut Street establishments are long gone, but the Pleasure Chest has survived due to Susan Mannino’s dedicated leadership and a willingness to innovate and adjust with the times and customers’ demand. The calendar, however, hasn’t changed at all. The second week in February is Christmas at Pleasure Chest as customers  flood the aisles of the store shopping for titillating gifts to wow their special someone.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Philadelphia.

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About the Author

Amy Cohen Amy Cohen spent 20 years as a social studies teacher, most recently at Masterman. She is currently the Director of Education at History Making Productions where she develops educational materials to accompany documentaries about the Philadelphia region. Amy was born and raised in Center City long before the era of sidewalk cafes and pop up beer gardens. She now lives in West Mount Airy with her husband—also a lifelong Philadelphian—and their two daughters.

14 Comments:

  1. Gailen says:

    Way to go Amy Cohen.
    Loved my Philly back in the day!

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      We knew it together….though you were probably bold enough to go in the store back in the day…

  2. Judy McCoubrey says:

    Great article! Thoroughly enjoyed. Maybe it’s time for a visit.
    Dead retail 😂

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks, Judy!

  3. Joe Korszniak says:

    Neal Evers was one of the kindest men I know. I am so sorry to know he died. I regret not keeping up my friendship with him. Thank you for the story. I will treasure it as long as I live.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      So touching! Thanks for your comment.

  4. Chris ODonnell says:

    Awesome. Can you do Sophy. Curson?

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      I believe that the Inquirer just did!

  5. Klint says:

    Lovely and thanks for the education. Very much needed 👍🏾

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Nina says:

    Thanks Amy! But now I am down the rabbit hole trying to figure out the 11 letter word Art Carney wasn’t willing to put in print in 1980.

  7. Carolyn Hernandez says:

    Ha Ha. I am 58 yrs old. Went in there in my 30’s with two girlfriends. One girlfriend came out with a stupid book that she probably never read and another girlfriend came out with a cart full of things…it was so hilarious. Not telling on myself. lol.

  8. Sherman Aronson says:

    Great story. I remember when it opened, a real shock on Walnut St. and an enticing entrance. Rey risqué back then.

  9. A Ghost says:

    Nina, you’d have to be a truly cunning linguist to figure that one out 🙂

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