The owner of the former Taboo Adult Superstore says he has gone mainstream after the U.S. Supreme Court turned back his case to stay open. But the city of Columbia still won’t issue him a business license.
Jeff White said he removed all pornographic books and movies and anatomically correct sex items from the Devine Street store, which now is mostly stocked with many of the same sexual novelties sold in stores like Spencer’s, a national chain with outlets in most malls.
He also has dropped “adult superstore” from the name and removed all signage referring to “adult.” He will let anyone 16 years old or older in.
“I’m operating a general retail business now,” he said. “But the city is still associating my new business with my old business.”
It is the second time White has pulled the items in his running battle with the city. He removed them in February 2016 and changed the name to Taboo the Couples Superstore, before putting the items back a month later.
A spokeswoman for the city declined comment on the Taboo situation, citing pending litigation. But a denial letter to White from the city stated that his assertion the store was now a “general retail business” was “misleading” and it is still a sex shop.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to not hear White’s appeal of a district judge’s 50-page ruling that the city’s efforts to close Taboo were not a violation of his constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and of due process.
White is fighting the city over getting a business license for the store with its current merchandise. The Board of Zoning Appeals decided not to hear White’s case for a special exception under the city’s zoning laws. His store remains open as he appeals the board’s decision not to hear his request.
The new battle over the general retail license is the most recent in an ongoing struggle by the city to close the shop. The city has been trying to close Taboo, which is located in a former Taco Bell restaurant at 4716 Devine St. near Rosewood Avenue, since it opened in 2011.
Columbia hired Scott Bergthold, a Chattanooga attorney who specializes in helping local governments in disputes with sexually oriented businesses. He tweaked the city’s laws, and the changes allegedly placed Taboo out of compliance.
Taboo was 551 feet from the nearest structure, a church. The previous law said a business like Taboo could not be within 500 feet of a church. The new law changed that to 700 feet.
In changing its laws, the city asserted that sexually oriented businesses often are accompanied by “adverse secondary effects” such as prostitution, lewdness and damage to property values nearby.
But even Mother Nature has failed to close the store. The Oct. 4, 2015, flood destroyed White’s inventory and heavily damaged the 1,600-square-foot building next to Gills Creek. The store reopened a few weeks later, one of the first to recover from the deluge.
White said that even in the internet age, adult bookstores are lucrative.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” he said. “And 25 years ago, most of your sales were from VHS tapes and magazine sales.”
But today, he said, because of free online porn, that market has evaporated. Now, he said, 80 percent of his business is from women and couples who want sex toys, costumes, lingerie and novelties.
“Sex is like a drug, an impulse thing,” he said. “You don’t want to wait for it. Plus sexual devices are unique; you want to hold and feel and touch them. It’s very intimate. And sex will always sell.”