‘Porno Queen’ to ‘Class Act’ : Erotica: Store owner wins battle for acceptance, though some still deplore her business.
There was a time when Vada Klein shocked residents of tiny Hermosa Beach.
She’d stride up to them at social functions, introduce herself as the owner of the Tender Box and watch the reaction as Hermosa society met an adult-bookstore owner face to face for the first time.
But Klein raises fewer eyebrows these days.
Over the past two decades, she has turned her store into a successful retailer of adult videos and sex paraphernalia and at the same time made great strides in her effort to be considered just another Hermosa shopkeeper.
“It’s taken a while for people to have an open mind to her,” said B. J. Conte of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “This is a small town and it’s sort of cliquish. She’s put up with it, waited it out, and now people generally accept her.”
The road from outcast to member of the Establishment has not been easy. Klein’s initial attempts to join the Chamber of Commerce were rejected; today she is an active member. She had to persuade organizers of a local theater company to accept a $5,000 donation; today she contributes regularly to many local charities. She used to be ignored at social events; today she schmoozes with the movers and shakers.
Even so, there are residents who wish her business’ front door was boarded shut. And police officials, even as they praise the way Klein runs her Pacific Coast Highway shop, are cracking down on the city’s other adult store across the street.
Richard Papillon of the Fantasy Arcade is as unknown to city leaders as Klein is visible.
“I have no idea who he is,” Councilman Chuck Sheldon said. “Never seen him. Never heard of him.”
Police say Papillon’s store has been a trouble spot for years. Neighbors, such as Jim Mizina, have complained about store patrons having sex in their front yards, turning the area into a red-light district. Vice officers have arrested 19 Fantasy Arcade patrons in the past nine months for soliciting undercover officers or having sex in the video booths.
Papillon has told authorities that he will not comply with a list of city-imposed conditions on his business unless they also apply to the Tender Box.
“There is lewd conduct going on in both places,” said Papillon, who has owned his store for the past 18 years. “It is unavoidable. If the law is going to be enforced, it should be enforced equally.”
The city has taken legal action to force Papillon to take the doors off his video booths, brighten the interior lights and hire a security guard. Papillon maintains that his business is being unfairly singled out.
He said he has already brightened his lights and closed off small holes between adjacent video booths with sheet metal to prevent lewd acts. Despite a deadline that falls today, Papillon has said he has no plans to go any further unless Klein is forced to do the same.
“She has donated tremendous amounts of money to the city,” he said. “She has awards on her walls. She is very rich and the city doesn’t want to lose her. . . . I don’t go out to lunches and rub elbows with the city manager.”
City officials--including City Manager Kevin Northcraft and Police Cmdr. Anthony Altfeld--insist that the Tender Box gets no special treatment.
When authorities received two reports of minors entering the Tender Box, officers confronted Klein and she assured them that her employees would be more vigilant, Altfeld said. Papillon has not been as cooperative, he said.
“As far as we can tell, Ms. Klein runs her business according to all laws and regulations, and that’s all we ask,” Altfeld said. “There is no slack dealt for Ms. Klein.”
Klein, 47, says she won community acceptance because prudishness is less fashionable and her store is a clean version of a typically dirty business.
Inside the Tender Box, Klein hangs brightly colored ribbons from the ceiling and plays cheerful music. She is careful to stock gag gifts--like underwear for two and full-body condoms--near the front for bashful patrons and the more shocking videos, magazines and sexual devices toward the back. Her store is not an “adult bookstore,” she says, but “a retail entertainment business,” and her advertisements avoid the words adult or sex.
“I see BMWs and Mercedes outside,” she said. “People come in my store and leave their limos parked out front. A man once came in at 1 a.m. and bought $941 worth of merchandise with a credit card.”
Klein’s initial attempts at becoming an accepted corporate citizen were not well received.
In 1987, when she was not invited to join a parade of business owners to celebrate the city’s 80th birthday, she rented an elephant and marched anyway. Chagrined parade organizers attempted to seize the treats she was passing out to children when rumors surfaced that the candies were really condoms.
A year later, a community uproar developed when she donated $5,000 to the Hermosa Community Center Foundation to support the musical and theater productions there. Former Mayor Edie Webber, envisioning a theater program with an adult bookstore advertisement inside, threatened to resign from the board of directors if the group took the money.
“I just thought that children’s theater and community entertainment should not be funded with money from a porno shop,” Webber recalled.
In the end, the center took the money and Webber stepped down.
“They realized that I’m just like everybody else,” Klein said. “I’m not some big, bad porno queen.”
Since then, Klein’s philanthropy has extended to many local causes, including $700 for a downtown palm tree, $500 a year for a Thanksgiving feast sponsored by a local newspaper and $10,000 to start an AIDS residential home.
Her gift baskets--full of condoms, panties and body lotions--have been auctioned off at many local charities. Councilman Sheldon himself was the high bidder at a Christmas party for city employees last year.
“She’s a class act who has . . . involved herself in Hermosa,” Sheldon said. “She lives in Hermosa and works in Hermosa. She runs a clean operation and makes a lot of money.”
Charity work has been just one part of Klein’s road to respectability.
Unlike the shadowy figures she says her business is known for, Klein shows her face at community events such as the annual Women’s Club fashion show and Chamber of Commerce installation dinner and regularly lobbies for small-business owners.
“When I speak at the City Council I feel that people listen to me more because they’re familiar with my store,” she said. “Even if they don’t like it, they’re familiar with it. I’ll worry when people stop talking about me, not when they talk about me. I’ve always been a controversial person.”
Klein acknowledges that the stigma of her business still sticks. Her contributions to local political candidates at election time are always anonymous to avoid embarrassing those she seeks to help. She still declines to reveal whom she has supported in past elections.
Klein knows not everyone is a Tender Box booster.
Ex-Mayor Webber, for instance, considers Klein and Papillon different only in degree--just like Playboy and Hustler magazines, she says. And Webber takes exception to Klein’s attempts to present an upscale image.
“I really think Ms. Klein sees herself as an upstanding citizen,” Webber said. “She acts as though she runs a 31 Flavors when she really runs an adult bookstore. She has every right to have her business, but call a spade a spade. If you run an ice cream store, call it an ice cream store. ‘Retail entertainment business’ sounds like a Hallmark gift shop.”
Anti-pornography activists are no fans of Klein’s place either.
“The war is not against her but what her store represents,” said Nancy Ellenberger, the South Bay representative for the Traditional Values Coalition. “These stores do not enhance or encourage family or Judeo-Christian values. They can bring more crime, alcohol and drugs into a community. . . . Even if someone is an atheist and doesn’t agree with our position, they are interested in property values.”
Despite the criticism leveled against her, Klein says she has come a long way since the early 1970s, when her business opened.
Last year, the Tender Box won the city’s Christmas decoration contest, and the two 1910-vintage cottages where she lives won a city beautification award. Fellow residents who once shot icy stares her way now browse in her store, she says.
Another telltale sign of her acceptance will come next month, when she plans to give her fourth $5,000 donation to the community center. She expects this check, unlike the first $5,000, to be cashed without a stir.