Sex shop tries new tactic to stay put

Store reinvents itself as office supply outlet in last-ditch effort to avoid closing

Richard Osburn still sells sexually explicit DVDs, bottles of massage oils and an array of devices that go by such names as The Accommodator.

But these days he also is peddling products that would be perfectly acceptable for work: rubber bands and paper clips, each individually packaged in tiny Ziploc baggies and listed for sale at 10 cents apiece.

“I’m in the office-supply business,” Osburn says, with a wink.

But even Osburn acknowledges that the I’m-selling-for-the-office gambit may not be enough to keep his 7-year-old shop, Naughty but Nice, in business for much longer.

City inspectors stopped by the shop at 1741 Mass. last week, measuring displays and counting products to see whether he had come into compliance with a city law that prohibits sex shops from operating without a license and from being located in any commercial area other than along a state highway.

Now more than six years after the city’s law hit the books, the city’s legal team is poised to take Osburn to court to start assessing fines of up to $500 a day or otherwise force him to relocate or close.

“Currently there is a substantial potential for immediate criminal or civil enforcement action for violations of the Land Development Code,” said Scott Miller, a staff attorney at City Hall. “We’ll leave it at that.”

Osburn knows the regulatory assault is coming – he’s been warned the enforcement action could come any day now – and this week he let his attorney go, acknowledging that he wouldn’t be able to afford the anticipated legal bills. His landlord is getting ready to put the stand-alone building back up for rent.

But that doesn’t mean Osburn’s giving up.

To increase his inventory of “legitimate” merchandise compared to adult-oriented sex toys, magazines and other products, Osburn has expanded his store’s selection. The goal: make Naughty But Nice just like any other clothing, music or bookstore in town, free from the shackles of government regulation.

Among his latest moves:

¢ Acquiring a case of children’s cartoons – Felix the Cat, Daffy Duck, etc. – on DVD, for sale alongside a tub of commemorative ball-point pens leftover from the birth of his son in 2001.

¢ Stacking dozens of empty video-cassette cases on the floor, each offered for sale to customers interested in “protecting” their own videos at home.

¢ Buying 4,000 titles from the Lawrence Public Library’s used book sale, then offering them for 25 cents apiece or five for $1.

“It’s fantastic that you can come in here and get books, but it’s prude to try and force this man out of so-called ‘decent society,'” said Lillian Sheain, who bought 15 books, including four dictionaries, at the store Wednesday afternoon – along with a harness and handcuffs. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Osburn himself doesn’t expect the moves to actually work. The city is after him and him alone, Osburn said, and he is confident that inspectors will find a way to define even relatively innocuous products – pre-packaged dresses, for example – as sexually explicit items instead of mainstream fashion items he maintains them to be.

Miller, the city’s staff attorney, declined to discuss results from inspections, other than to clarify that the city has an overall law that makes it illegal, in the case of Naughty But Nice, to operate at 1741 Mass.

“We have made every effort to attempt to allow Naughty But Nice to organize in a manner that would allow them to continue to operate under the city’s ordinances,” he said. “When those efforts fail, our only option is to commence enforcement action. :

“The bottom line: The city cannot ignore blatant violations of the law.”

While Osburn still holds out hope that the ACLU might one day offer legal assistance, he’s already looking ahead. He plans to keep selling his merchandise by stepping through a “loophole” that the city has yet to address.

And the baggies will be gone.

“I’ve had to put in idiotic merchandise that I don’t have a market for,” Osburn said. “But for what I have in mind and what I plan to do, there is no law on the books.”