A sealed storage container filled with sex toys and pornographic DVDs and magazines sat in Shane and Jessica Madsen's backyard for four years, along with the display cases and fixtures that once saw service at their Missoula adults-only shop.
The Madsens opened Adult Avenue in 2002 and ran what they say was a clean, couples-oriented store that brought in new customers every day. But when their landlord decided not to renew their lease in the Montana Center building, in 2007, the business the Madsens built was cast into limbo for nearly four years, entailing a series of flat-out rejections and cold shoulders by prospective landlords all over town.
"It was hard," says Jessica, who is 28. "We had all our inventory, and still owed on some of it, and it was just sitting around not getting sold."
The couple finally re-opened Adult Avenue in Missoula this summer, on East Main Street. Now they're hoping to win back a customer base that originally took them years to build.
"When you take four years off, you have a learning curve again. Things change a lot," says Shane, who is 33. "You're trying to keep up with the trends and customers' changing tastes." For example, he says, he's sure that people in their 40s and older will continue to want to rent porn on DVDs for the time being, but he's not sure whether now is the smart time to make the leap to porn on high-def Blu-Ray, especially when no one is asking him for it yet. "I don't know what my demand will be," he says.
Adult Avenue is essentially a retail business just like any other, Shane continues; it's no different from his days at Sentinel High School when he began selling baseball cards and other collectibles online and at traveling shows. That's where he met his future wife and business partner, Jessica. She got involved in his first crack at running a business, taking care of the shipping and handling for his internet-based sales. She "did the baseball cards with him just because, you know, I was his girlfriend," she says. "And it was fun."
In 2000, however, they noticed that people had lost interest in the collectibles market and they were looking for something else to sell. There were only a couple of storefronts in Missoula with risqué stock. There was an opportunity there, they thought. It "kind of started as a joke," Jessica says, "and then we ended up getting a few boxes of [adult] DVDs, and we were selling them online"—mostly compilations of sex scenes, as well as some of the more popular series then, such as Dane Productions' College Girls.
The couple cut the ribbon on their own storefront for erotic merchandise, Adult Avenue, on South Avenue, in 2002. They worked out of a small space in the Montana Center building. Eventually they were making real money, they say. "Five years later, we were still open and had bought a house on our own," Jessica points out.
But in the summer of 2007, their landlord informed them that he would be remodeling their space and would not renew their lease, they say. Montana Center owner Tony Dalpiaz declined to comment for this story.
The Madsens were given four months' notice, they say. They found a landlord who agreed to lease them space on South Russell Street, and spent a week and a half making renovations to that new space before they were told once again to leave. "All of a sudden he decided, 'Well, we can't keep you around because other tenants have problems with it," Shane says. He'd "done quite a bit of work on that guy's building...my labor, on my dime, and then he just kicked my ass out."
Property owners just tend to be close-minded about their business, they say. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have had 20 to 30 people refuse to rent to me due to my credit score of approximately 800 and great references," Shane says. "People don't have any other reason not to rent to me."
The rejections continued for another four years, they say. "I probably checked into, like, 50 locations," Shane says. "Most of them did flat say...'I will not rent to an adult store.' And out of those people, at least a dozen of them did choose to rent to a medical marijuana dispensary or a pipe shop.
"I'd basically given up hope for a while there."
But now the Madsens have a new space, at 137 East Main St., that gives them twice the floor space of their last location, allowing them to carry lingerie and to bring in Halloween costumes next year. Shane says he hopes that people will remember Adult Avenue as a place that doesn't feature public preview booths, which make some customers uncomfortable. "We're trying to push that aspect, and remind people why it's a good couples-friendly-oriented store," he says.
Now some of their competition— Fantasy For Adults Only—is just across the street and down a block. Fantasy manager Bill Emerson also declined to comment for this story. "If you're afraid to be near your competition in business," says a confident Shane, "then don't even bother doing it."