Diamond Adult World in Grover Beach is decorated for the holidays. On the windows that face busy Grand Avenue, reindeer pull a fat Santaâ€™s sleigh while painted snow falls on a cheerful pine tree. Inside, 22 days before Christmas, owner Steve Diamond was giving New Times a tour of the shop.
He began on the soft-core side. Near the front door, Playboy-brand bras and underwear hung near frilly lingerie in black and red and white. More racks offered handcuffs padded with Day-Glo fur and skimpy underwear for men and women. Nearby, a rotating stand held novelty items: ball gags, fake dog collars, nipple clamps â€” each one demonstrated by a cute model on the label of the itemâ€™s shiny plastic bag.
Diamond has well-coifed graying hair and beard. The top button of his shirt is usually open. He wears a gold chain on one wrist, a gold watch on the other. His smile is genuine but distant, not unlike his personality.
In the center of the store are large glass cases that reflect the bright fluorescent lights overhead. Inside the cases are oils â€” oils for massage, oils that enhance sensation, oils with different flavors â€” whipped-cream canisters, some gag gifts, and how-to books.
Next to the case is a wall covered in magazines. Hustler, Connoisseur, Pleasure, Men Only, Fetish World, Back Seat Driver. The headlines are often explicit but nipples and crotches on the covers are covered with large stickers that read, â€œBig Boobs $7.99,â€? or â€œYoung and Ready $14.99.â€?
Diamond led the tour down a few stairs to the other side of the store. First were more novelties, this time for bachelor and bachelorette parties. There were the inflatable sheep and boobs. The plastic silverware shaped like penises. The piÃ±atas shaped like the torsos of busty females and hunky males, the menâ€™s papier-mÃ¢chÃ© members extending up far past their belly buttons.
â€œAnd then we continue on,â€? Diamond said in his clipped drawl. â€œWe go into your sex dolls. Your kits for beginners who donâ€™t know what they want. Over here are butt plugs. Mini vibrators. Hereâ€™s a vibrator that comes with a cock ring. Almost $50. Itâ€™s all in the motors. If you buy cheap ones, they wonâ€™t last you. If you buy a good one, youâ€™ll have it for a long time. And then you get into your penis pumps.â€?
* * * *
While some of Californiaâ€™s biggest adult-industry moguls have inherited their businesses from parents, Diamond grew up in the jewelry trade â€” a background he parlayed into his own pawnshop in Van Nuys. When he purchased a ranch in New Cuyama he discovered Taft and Santa Maria, and soon had pawnshops in both those towns as well.
Down in Van Nuys, Diamond rented half his pawnshop building to a man who ran an adult store. When the manâ€™s gambling debts caught up to him in 1993, Diamond bought him out on the advice of an employee.
Soon after that, Kmart came to Taft and Diamond started selling adult items in his Taft store as a way to stay competitive. It wasnâ€™t that the retail giant was selling sex toys; Diamond just needed a way to keep people coming to his store after jewelry sales plummeted.
â€œHow did your family take it?â€? I asked. â€œWhat did you tell your mom?â€?
Both his parents had passed away by that time, but Diamond still thinks they, and especially his mother, wouldnâ€™t have cared.
â€œIn fact, I think my mom would have gotten a kick out of it. The only reason I say that is not that she ever went in [adult stores] â€” that I know of â€” but she always said that people should always be able to do what they want,â€? he said. â€œI always remembered that and I think itâ€™s one of the things that made me make the decision.â€?
The original pawn and adult shop are still in existence along with three other Central Coast locations and Diamondâ€™s Santa Maria corporate office and video distribution center.
In all, Diamond employs between 55 and 60 people in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
Continuing the tour, Diamond got to, as he almost clinically put it, the â€œclitoral stimulators.â€? One whole wall of the store is devoted to vibrators of any hardness, softness, or bizarreness a customer would want.
The point of a vibrator is simple: to create a pleasant buzzing feeling. But after that, anything goes. Some spin at the base; some spin at the top. Some are made of â€œcyber skinâ€?: a mushy, unpleasantly flesh-like substance. Some are designed to fit inside a woman while a whole other branch does the vibrating.
So what advice would Diamond give a first-time vibrator buyer?
â€œAll we sell is fantasy. I canâ€™t be in your head. Your fantasy is one thing, somebody elseâ€™s is something else,â€? he said. â€œWe can make suggestions â€” a lot of the clerks know from personal use. I give â€™em a lot of stuff, â€™cause Iâ€™d rather they know what theyâ€™re selling. But what may stimulate one person may not stimulate another.â€?
Thatâ€™s why there are so many different kinds of vibrators â€” he wants the store to have supermarket-like variety.
â€œIn fact, my dream is to have 100,000 square feet, like Costco, and you just go up and down the aisle with shopping carts. Itâ€™s not a bad idea, is it?â€? he asked, his eyes twinkling.
Diamondâ€™s humor probably comes from what he imagined a cityâ€™s reaction would be if he tried to build an industrial-park-sized adult store. Regardless of where heâ€™s opened â€” or tried to open â€” a store on the Central Coast, the outcry has been angry and tumultuous. He shut his Taft store down after a battle with that city. In Atascadero, the city paid him to move out of downtown. The Grover Beach store feels settled and ready for years of commerce, but Diamond and that city council are entangled in a legal morass that involves not only the state courts but also the Coastal Commission.
And when the Pismo Beach City Council caught wind that Diamond was looking around for a store location in its city, one member, Arlene Gonzales-Gee, went so far as to call the business owner an â€œevil manâ€? during an emergency City Council meeting early this month.
Diamond appeared unfazed when approached with that story. Despite the Grover Beach City Councilâ€™s promise to limit him to a few areas of town, he calmly insists that heâ€™ll open a store there and that it will move the largest inventory â€” between $2 and $3 million a year â€” of all his stores because of the high tourist traffic.
Asked whether the Central Coast is saturated with adult stores or if the Internet is drawing business away, Diamond answered no to both questions. He said he plans to open more stores and that people will always come in to touch, feel, and turn an item on and off before purchasing it.
The last part of Diamond Adult World is made up of DVDs, one of the storeâ€™s biggest profit makers. (Lingerie and magazines are the other best sellers.) Shelf after shelf is lined with the slim cases, each color-coded to indicate what kind of porn the title represents. Straight, group, Asian, gay, lesbian, transgender, black, bisexual, fetish â€” the list fills up a large handwritten square of paper on the back wall.
A few titles from the bargain bin: â€œBlack Booty Call,â€? â€œHollywood Nymphomaniacs,â€? â€œGirls in the Hole,â€? â€œTight Tranny Asses.â€?
In the hall behind the DVDs are five darkened viewing rooms. The booths are built to hold, barely, one person. Diamond squeezed into one and sat on the seat. I pried myself in as he fed a bill into the machine. â€œItâ€™s all touch screen,â€? he said, poking at a numeral displayed on the monitor.
In a room dozens of feet away, a bank of computers and DVD players sprang into action. In the cramped viewing room, Diamond and I were so uncomfortably close I could smell the clean odor of his clothes. On the screen, different films passed by: a tangled pile of arms, legs, and oiled thin bodies; the tops of heads bobbing at crotches; a group of men standing around a woman as she shouted in what was supposed to be pleasure.
On our way out of the booth, we passed a mop bucket leaning against the wall.
â€œDo you have employees who are hesitant to do the cleanup?â€? I asked when we reached the bright safety of the main retail area.
â€œNo,â€? Diamond maintained, sternly. â€œThereâ€™s very little of it. Thereâ€™s no more than any other store. If I catch somebody, theyâ€™re ejected. I donâ€™t want that kind of business.â€?
Despite what the cleaning supplies implied, his answer held an economic truth that seems to permeate not only Diamond Adult World but sex-themed stores from Manhattan to the slums of East St. Louis: Why let stereotyped men sully the floors and TV screens for a few quarters when an owner can make hundreds of dollars from a clientele that respects a cleanly run establishment?
As Diamond explained: â€œWe have a lot of people like this gentleman back [in the booths] now. Chances are, if you werenâ€™t here heâ€™d come out and pick one or two [DVDs] and buy them. And when youâ€™re talking new releases, thatâ€™s $50 to $100.â€?
* * * *
Diamondâ€™s tour didnâ€™t end in the shop, but behind it.
When he bought the property, he also acquired two derelict houses that heâ€™s since remodeled with locally quarried tile, oak cabinets, and new lawns.
â€œIâ€™m going to turn them into whorehouses,â€? he deadpanned, joking on his public perception.
Peeking through the tiny cracks in Diamondâ€™s dry public persona reveals a man who wishes people saw his stores like he does: as an asset to the community. Push and heâ€™ll reluctantly reveal the local organizations Diamond Inc. gives money to: Elks, Soroptimists, womenâ€™s shelters, the Boys and Girls Club, the police scouts in Santa Maria.
â€œI want to build nice shadowbox windows and put up a lingerie display,â€? he said, pointing to the main building. â€œThey [the Grover Beach city officials] wonâ€™t let me. But Fanny Wrappers and Victoriaâ€™s Secret [in San Luis Obispo] can flash it all over town.â€?
A car drove by, its driver honking and waving in recognition at Diamond. He squinted at the rear window and waved back.
Returning to the conversation, he pointed to the broken asphalt and potholes in 10th Street right before it intersects Grand.
â€œThey could fix this street right here with what theyâ€™re spending on me in one week,â€? he said, fire in his eyes. â€œThere isnâ€™t money to fix the holes in the street but thereâ€™s money to fight me. Time and money to fight me.â€?
Even as he tries to portray his empire as a normal part of the world, Diamond obviously stands at an intersection of sex, business, and what others define as a sense of community.
He described it best when he griped about people who call his stores and ask if thereâ€™s a back door.
â€œI say if you canâ€™t walk in that front door, you shouldnâ€™t be here. Because your neighbor that youâ€™re going to see in here is in here for the same reason. If itâ€™s your pastor, God bless him. He has sex, too.â€?
As we stood on the sidewalk and talked, two men â€” one middle-aged, one in his 20s â€” walked out of the store minutes apart, a laden black plastic bag in hand.
It had nothing to do with the holiday season. It was a normal workday, and for Steve Diamond, business was booming.
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached