Saturday, April 01, 2000

We're stuck with Hustler, city says

Barbs traded as adult store opens

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dustin Flynt, nephew of Larry Flynt, rings up purchases.
(Stephen M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        The opening of a downtown Hustler store is a slap in the face to “the good citizens of Cincinnati,” City Manager John Shirey said Friday.

        But those are the citizens Jimmy Flynt said he hopes to serve — and some of the same ones who were lining up behind the counter, hands full of store merchandise.

        “The perception of stores like this is all they sell is porn and dirty movies,” said Lynne Greenwell, who stopped by the store with some friends Friday afternoon. “They have clothes, they have candles, they have things that won't make you go to hell.”

        Standing outside his Elm Street store beneath a giant banner emblazed with the adult magazine's name, Mr. Flynt said the city is the one doing the slapping.

        “I'm not picking on them,” Mr. Flynt said. “They're coming after me.”

        He denied that he and his brother, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, opened their third store downtown as a way to get even with officials who have shut them down twice before.

        “This is about being a thorn in the side of Cincinnati,” Mr. Shirey said during a press conference at City Hall just minutes before the neon “Open” sign clicked on in the Hustler store. “I am very disappointed that Larry Flynt has continued his ven detta against the good people of Cincinnati.”

        If the Flynt brothers are a thorn, however, some city council members are wondering if the city helped to grow the rosebush.

        “It's another example where economic development efforts have gone nowhere,” said Councilman Phil Heimlich, who drafted an ordinance four years ago banning sex-oriented businesses from the city. “When we talk about developing new business, this is clearly not what we had in mind.”

        The building where the Flynts are now doing business — a block south of the convention center and adjacent to the new home of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation on Fourth Street — has been vacant for six years, since the city evicted the Elm Street Cafe to make way for a bigger economic development project.

        “The fact that the building has not developed into a positive business is clearly the fault of economic development,” Mr. Heimlich said.

        Adamant that the city did nothing wrong, Mr. Shirey said the Flynts would have moved somewhere else in the city if they hadn't gotten the site of the former Elm Street Cafe, whose sign still swung gently in front of the bold Hustler logo that went up Friday.

        “I am not going to accept for a minute that the city is responsible,” Mr. Shirey said.

        Councilman Paul Booth said Friday that the city “obviously dropped the ball” on Elm Street.

        “We could have handled it much better,” he said. “Obviously, if we handled it better, then Elm Street would still be there and Hustler would be out hustling.”

        Two years ago, without doing any development, city officials sold the building to Bob Schneider, who leased it to the Flynts.

        “We thought we were selling to a responsible property owner,” Mr. Shirey said, adding that he would rather have a vacant storefront than a Hustler store downtown. “Mr. Schneider has erred badly.”

        “Then maybe Mr. Shirey would like to buy it,” Mr. Schneider said Friday. “I don't want to get into name-calling with anyone over this. But the property has been vacant for six years and the area has deteriorated.”

        He said the Flynts have agreed to comply with the law.

        “They have done a lot of work. It is a significant improvement from the street. They turned the front into a 1900s entryway,” Mr. Schneider said. “It's one of few retail spaces that have been upgraded in the area in last 10 years.”

        Inside, the store has been transformed from a cafe into a well-lit emporium of novelties, candles, games, books, magazines and clothes featuring the Hustler logo. Decorated in pastel colors that reflect light streaming in from the glass front, it isn't much different from any card and gifts store, albeit with an explicit edge and a Marvin Gaye soundtrack playing “Sexual Healing.”

        Not until shoppers pass the front desk and the “Censornati, Ohio” postcards do they reach adult magazines, lace lingerie and an assortment of sex aids that have given the Hustler store its controversial reputation.

        Kathyrn Merchant, chief executive officer of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which spent millions renovating new offices on Fourth and Elm streets, said she was surprised to learn Hustler had opened next door.

        “I guess I feel, given our mission as a philanthropic group to enhance life, that we would prefer a business that is more compatible to our mission,” she said. “It's not a business we would choose.”

        But city officials now admit they are stuck.

        “As long as they follow the law, there is nothing we can do,” Councilwoman Minette Cooper said. “That is their right.”

        The Flynts previously have closed two downtown stores over a city ordinance preventing businesses that dedicate a significant amount of their merchandise to adult material from operating downtown. Now they hope to also open a store in Monroe.

        “I don't like to see someone selling dirty magazines or sex toys in the city,” Mr. Heimlich said. “But Flynt knows what the law is, and if he fits under the threshold — and doesn't break the law — there is nothing we can do about it.”

        Mr. Shirey said the store will be carefully monitored as long as the Flynts continue to be “smut dealers.”

        “This is about coming home, it's not even about making money,” Mr. Flynt said. “The city should focus on more important issues, like spending taxpayer money, riverfront development and schools.”

        Lisa Biank Fasig contributed to this report.


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