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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sex retailer moves in Adult merchandise store sits poorly with neighbor, councilor

By DAVID PRESZLER

A sex superstore chain started moving into a vacant Medford grocery store Thursday, just a day after its effort to expand here appeared to have fallen through.

And as Castle Superstores officials push toward opening this weekend, city officials and at least one neighboring business condemned the large adult retail store's arrival.

Castle, an Arizona-based adult retail chain, filed for -- and got -- a business license Thursday morning to open a store off Biddle Road in the building vacated earlier this year by Cantwell's Markets.

A lease agreement between store owner Tom Cantwell and Castle Superstores was reached late Wednesday, according to Craig McNichol, Castle's director of new store development. Details of the agreement were not made public.

Cantwell, who did not return phone messages left at his business and home Thursday, said Wednesday afternoon that a sale of the building had been reached, only to say an hour later that the deal had fallen through.

McNichol, who travels around the country opening new stores for Castle, said such swings are common. He also said it's normal to get the doors open quickly and that the merchandise for the store is already headed this way.

"We are opening so many stores that we keep things ready," he said as he took a break from working inside the store at 1113 Progress Drive. He started the work Thursday; by midafternoon, McNichol was frosting windows and removing the last remnants of Cantwell's grocery signs from the walls.

The sudden arrival of the adult store didn't sit well with Karen and Jonathan Hanken. The Hankens own Top Stitch, a sewing and fabric store across the parking lot from Castle's new store.

The couple fear they may lose customers who aren't comfortable with such a large adult store so close. They say that if that happens, they may file a civil lawsuit to try to recover business losses.

"We are looking at women, retirees, women that quilt," said Karen Hanken. "I was even thinking about having children's sewing classes. To have that kind of influence across the parking lot is disturbing to me."

The Hankens say such a store just doesn't fit with businesses such as her store and the nearby Dairy Queen.

"We are talking about family businesses here," Karen Hanken said. "It's not next to the places where this type of entertainment is expected.

"We're not talking about a little hole-in-the-wall store off the beaten path. We are talking about a very visible place."

The high-profile location, which has 18,000 square feet of retail space, was one of the things that attracted Castle to the vacant Cantwell's store, McNichol said. He said all the chain's stores are in mainstream locations.

"We only go for A or B-plus locations," he said. "We don't want to be off the beaten path."

At Thursday's noon City Council meeting, Councilwoman Linda Casey -- who represents the part of town where the store will be located -- said she fears Castle's arrival will bring more adult businesses.

"Once these businesses get a toehold in a community, the next thing you know, we'll have a junior Portland," she said.

There is no city ordinance regulating where adult retail stores can be built and no legal way to prevent them from coming, but Casey called for the community to put pressure on Cantwell and other businessmen not to sell or lease to adult companies.

"There are some times when money cannot be the bottom line," she said.

Critics such as the Hankens wonder what makes Castle think such a store will be profitable here.

"We can't believe there's a base of people that can make that business succeed," said Jonathan Hanken, whose sewing business opened in December.

"We know the value system that is in place here. We pulled up roots to move here and plant roots based on a set of values that we thought were here."

But McNichol is confident that the store will be a success, noting that the adult retail industry generates $10 billion nationwide each year.

"People want it," he said. "Love has no bounds."

He said 60 percent of Castle's customers are single women ages 25 to 49 and that's the group the store intends to target here. Couples make up 30 percent of the sales and men the other 10, he said.

McNichol said his company strives to be a good corporate neighbor and that there have been no problems with neighbors at the chain's other eight locations. Three stores are in Phoenix, Ariz., and one in nearby Mesa. The other four are in Albuquerque, N.M.; Tacoma, Wash.; Spokane, Wash.; and Silverdale, Wash. But neighbors often are skeptical at first.

"They don't know us or our operation, but once they see it, they realize that their initial thoughts about it were wrong," he said.

McNichol said the window frosting that he did Thursday -- to avoid offending anyone who might walk by -- is just one of the things his company does to put forward a classy image. He said no big signs saying "XXX" or anything like that will be put up; all the storefront will say is "Castle Superstores."

Only at the door will it be clearly posted that the store sells sex products. McNichol said identification checks to make sure customers are 18 years old are strictly enforced.

The store is strictly retail and McNichol said the company strives to have a well-lit, respectable and comfortable environment for its customers.

"It's essential that they feel comfortable," he said, admitting that the subject matter is "very taboo."

But Jonathan Hanken, who called Castle's headquarters to get information Wednesday, said the company's talk about an upscale store doesn't change his opinion about it.

"It is what it is, not matter how it's packaged," he said. "You can package it any way you want to, but there's a stigma to it and a shadiness to it."

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