Come As You Are Faces Financial Challenges Head On
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Come As You Are Faces Financial Challenges Head On

A feminist, sex-positive co-operative sex shop turns to supporters for financial help.

Come As You Are   493 Queen Street West

Note: Some links and gallery photos are NSFW.

Last Wednesday, faithful customers of highly regarded Queen West sex shop Come As You Are (lovingly known as CAYA) received a startling, if not entirely surprising, call for help in the store’s latest e-newsletter. “It’s Time We Talked,” the message began, and sadly, the talk was about some all-too-familiar sounding financial troubles.

“We’ve watched so many of our most favourite independent Toronto sex shops and booksellers close their doors for a final time over the past couple of years,” the newsletter stated. “Rest in Peace: This Ain’t The Rosedale Library, Red Tent Sisters, The Toronto Women’s Bookstore, Lucky You—even MissBehavin’. To be honest, we’ve grieved a little for ourselves with each and every closing, knowing in our hearts that we might be next. And we may very well be.”

We met with worker-owner Sarah Forbes-Roberts, a 15-year CAYA veteran, who gave us a tour of the store’s wide range of sexual aids and accessories for people of all ages, genders, sexualities and abilities—including a number of exclusive products and many that are locally made. She confirmed that numerous disparate factors have converged to bring CAYA to the brink. Now, only a concerted effort from customers, supporters, and friends over the next few weeks will be able to give the co-operative the breathing room it needs to avoid closure and explore other options.

“Our sales have gone up significantly each year,” said Forbes-Roberts, “so we’ve been on that kind of trajectory, but it’s getting increasingly hard to compete with huge chains, and Amazon, and tons of websites in Canada.”

“That’s why we put out the call,” she continued. “To see if customers understand that we are ‘voting with our dollar,’ and we are creating the kind of economies we want, and the kinds of cities and communities we want. I think that when you open your wallet, you should really think about where you’re buying from. Since this started happening to us in the last year, I’ve been even more careful—I mean, I really believe in local economies; I’ve been even more careful about where I spend my money.”

We ask about the move from the original location at Queen and Bathurst a few years ago, and whether that helped the situation or made it worse. “So this is the other side of the sad tale,” Forbes-Roberts stated. “Queen Street rents are ludicrous, and our building was sold, and our rent was going to be tripled, so we moved two blocks away. Six months after that happened—now we’re paying double rent here but we had this beautiful space—everything in these two blocks went out of business. So now we’re surrounded by American Apparel and boarded-up stores.” The result is a strip that people rush through blindly, instead of strolling and shopping.

The next unavoidable question: Given the rising rents and changing climate for all kinds of specialized stores, is CAYA considering moving their business exclusively online? “It’s definitely something we’re looking at, closing the physical store, but we feel that this store has created a sense of community for people, and we’re really trying to stay competitive.”

And it’s true—CAYA has become as well-known for their workshops and educational efforts as for their products. They’re educating customers on everything from BDSM and non-monogamy to anal sex techniques and sex and disability. There is no substitute for these, and no way to replicate them effectively online. For a shop so focused on the sensual and tactile, moving its business entirely to the digital realm would inevitably diminish the experience.

However, that discussion can’t even begin until the current financial situation is resolved. The good news is that the S.O.S. is starting to be heard: sales are starting to pick up, and CAYA loyalists are spreading the word through social media, taking up the Twitter hashtag #savecaya. The store is offering a number of options for people who want to lend their support even if they’re broke, or just want to donate. A one-day-only Use It or Lose It Sale is set for Saturday, March 30, and will feature a surprise Tenga Easter Egg Hunt along Queen Street. And a number of workshops are planned for April and May, on such topics as practical tantra, the art of the female orgasm, and how to give a better blow job.

Will it be enough? “I think we can do it,” Forbes-Roberts said with encouraging confidence. “We’ve all taken a huge financial risk at this point, we’ve all reduced our wages, cut our health benefits. We’re really trying to make this work, we really want to fight for the company. And it’s not so much for us anymore, it’s so that this can be a place that continues to support people who are exploring their sexuality in a healthy way.”