Quantcast
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

It's not the dirty books, it's the peep shows

The porn peddlers

F Street Bookstore, North Park - Image by Craig Carlson
F Street Bookstore, North Park

Who rules San Diego’s multimillion-dollar pornography industry?

Ah, to have been an invisible observer in the room where San Diego adult bookstore owners gathered last October 8. The occasion was a meeting of the local pornography merchants’ trade association, AMMO (Adult Movie and Merchants Organization), and about a dozen men attended. Among them were two of the most interesting smut peddlers in the United States, Reuben Sturman and Gojko Vasic.

Reuben Sturman

Sturman, in fact, is the most important pornographer in the country, if not the world, manufacturing and selling hundreds of millions of dollars of sexually oriented goods annually to customers across the United States, Canada, and Europe. (Sturman is in trouble with the federal government; this fall he is scheduled to stand trial on a variety of felony tax-related charges.) In light of his vast business empire, Sturman’s local holdings may seem trivial — but he is apparently the largest adult bookstore owner in San Diego County.

Local authorities have been trying to restrict peepshow operations for almost twenty years.

Vasic is the second largest adult bookstore operator here, founder of the F Street bookstores, and he is credited with revolutionizing marketing in the local industry by creating clean, comfortable stores that aggressively court gays, women, and upper-income customers. Both Sturman and Vasic are complex, enigmatic men. Both have grown rich (though in different orders of magnitude) by exploiting the most intimate of human activities, including some of the most perverse.

Vice officer Howard Goldy

Both are well-known philanthropists, and both are extremely private, even secretive. It would have been fascinating to see them in the same room together, but members of the press were not invited to attend the meeting.

Les Girls complex

Sturman spends a lot of time in Cleveland — the headquarters for his publishing empire — and in Los Angeles, the nation's capital of video pornography production. He rarely makes it down to San Diego, so his presence at the October AMMO meeting surprised many people.

Rick Ford

What drew him here was the topic of how the local store owners should best fight the City of San Diego’s efforts to shut down “peepshows” (nowadays that term generally refers to private booths containing coin-operated, closed-circuit television sets on which patrons can choose from a variety of sexually explicit videos). According to one of the independent bookstore owners who attended the meeting, Sturman was escorted into the room accompanied by two underlings and effortlessly took control of the discussion.

It’s not surprising that Sturman or Vasic or anyone else in the porno world would be worried about the future of peepshows. They have become one of the biggest profit centers in the industry, and one indication of this is that not a single adult bookstore in San Diego operates without peepshows. On a cost-per-minute-of-entertainment basis, peepshows certainly have to rank with the most expensive pornography known to man. Most modern machines click on for between one and two minutes per quarter (the amount of time varies from store to store), during which customers can switch between many different videos: men orally copulating men on this channel; nude women bound by ropes on the next; an orgy on the third, and on and on. This means peepshow patrons are paying between thirty and sixty dollars per hour for this amusement.

Of course few patrons “peep” for more than a few minutes at a time, and no peepshow booths are occupied every minute around the clock. In fact, local peepshow revenues appear to vary tremendously. A conservative estimate, based on interviews with several industry insiders here, is that revenues per booth per day range from five to fifty dollars. Most stores have about eight booths, and the busiest adult arcades in San Diego have more. For example, the Hi-Lite bookstore within the Les Girls complex near Rosecrans has forty-five such peepshow booths. If peepshows were banished overnight, “it would certainly take the cream off the ’ top [of the business],” according to one local owner, who added, “they pay the rent.”

Fully aware of this, local authorities have been trying to restrict peepshow operations for almost twenty years. At one time or another, vice police have required peepshow operators to maintain minimum levels of light within the cubicles, to give the peepshow patrons a clear view of the store exit, to cut off the bottom few feet of the doors on the booths, to make the cubicles fire-resistant, and more. In September of 1984, the City of San Diego passed an ordinance requiring that all doors on video arcades showing sexually oriented material be removed altogether. Obviously, removing the doors would rob the peepshow patron of his privacy, and privacy forms the heart of the peepshows' appeal, conferring anonymity as it does, enabling some patrons to masturbate uninhibited and others to engage in homosexual intercourse in the booths. So the peep-show operators parried the city’s move by including some nonsexual video choices alongside the erotic offerings and claiming that the presence of these videos excluded the peepshows from the law. Now the city is readying a revision of the ordinance, which would force any video arcade (be its content sexual or otherwise) to go doorless.

This threat is one of the things that drew Sturman to San Diego last October. Sixty-one years old, the master pornographer looks years younger, according to those who have met him. He showed up at the recent AMMO meeting casually but neatly attired in a denim leisure suit. Brandishing a big cigar, he described how he had modified his peepshows in Phoenix in an attempt to outfox the no-door laws there. He reviewed some legal work prepared by the adult bookstore owners’ San Diego attorney and curtly pronounced it only adequate. AMMO should instead use his attorneys in Los Angeles, he said. Even the normally outgoing, talkative Vasic reportedly listened submissively to the big man's words of wisdom. “He [Sturman] is the only one I’ve seen who ever shut up Vasic,” says one of the other people present, in some amazement.

Over the years, Gojko (Greg) Vasic, who is in his early forties, has grown accustomed to having his peers in San Diego defer to him. His is one of the more impressive business successes in this city. A native of Yugoslavia, Vasic immigrated to East Chicago, Indiana along with his family, then later made his way alone to San Diego. He first surfaced in San Diego's adult entertainment world earning minimum wages while working as doorman for the late Vince Miranda’s Pussycat Theater downtown on Fourth Avenue, now the site of the Horton Plaza parking garage. His duties included sweeping the sidewalk, and every time he did so Vasic could not help but notice the steady stream of customers going into the X-rated Curious Bookstore next door to the theater. Although Vasic had never before visited an adult bookstore, he could see the potential for making money at such an enterprise, so one day he asked the neighboring store’s owner if any adult bookstores in San Diego were for sale. In this fashion, Vasic heard that a scruffy hole in the wall between Third and Fourth avenues on F Street, called the A & B Cattle Company, could be had for a price of $8000. This was in 1974.

“It looked like it was fit for cattle,” Vasic today recalls of the little bookstore on F Street. But he had a vision of how much better the store would do if it were cleaned and recarpeted. Inspired by that vision, Vasic called his parents back in Indiana and persuaded them to lend him the money to acquire the adult bookstore. He was barely thirty years old at the time. Although he was in business for himself, Vasic decided that for a while he would also continue to hold on to his paying job with the Pussycat chain.

People who knew him then say Vasic demonstrated a pattern of frugality and perseverance. And although he himself is not homosexual, it didn’t take Vasic long to perceive that San Diego’s homosexual community had an appetite for gay pornography, which at the time was not being very well served. Back then, just a dozen years ago, the entire question of what types of pornography could legally be sold here was still in flux. One person who was trying to keep current with the fast-moving changes in society’s attitude toward sex was San Diego police detective Howard Goldy. In 1972, shortly after Goldy had transferred into the department’s vice unit, he received an extraordinary assignment: he was to become an expert on pornography and obscenity, using those talents to guide the department in its prosecution of local porn purveyors. He began to study case law on pornography dating back to 1663 and traveled throughout the state, surveying the sexually explicit materials being sold in various communities. Here in San Diego, Goldy began to get acquainted with the local porn dealers, who he says differed dramatically from most of the adult bookstore owners today.

In the early 1970s, Goldy says, “A lot of these people had no regard for the law.” They would make some minimal effort to avoid being arrested by hiding hard-core materials when they knew the vice squad officers were coming, but “they knew that the [vice squad] worked till four o’clock, so at five o’clock, the dirty books came-out... and went on the shelves.” In those days the shops truly deserved to be known as dirty bookstores, according to the detective. “The stores themselves were just physically dirty,” he recalls. Poorly lighted, most smelled bad and were tended by unkempt clerks.

Magazines were among their hottest-selling items, yet the overall quality of those was terrible: smudged photos of ugly people awkwardly positioned in smutty postures.

Ironically, because of all the sales under the counter or after 4:00 p.m., Goldy says it was easier in the early 1970s than it is today for a San Diegan to purchase depictions of the most extreme sexual perversities: sex with animals, child pornography, sex with dead bodies, and the like. “Back in the early days, anytime you’d get a search warrant, you’d find tons of stuff in the back room,” he recalls. Of course, police confiscated such deviant material whenever they found it, but in the early 1970s the police felt they had the duty according to the law to seize even depictions of explicit standard male-female sex. By about 1974, however, the city had taken to trial several cases involving such heterosexual material, only to lose once and find juries unable to reach any decision in the other instances. The juries in effect were indicating to police that such material was no longer “obscene,” thus no longer illegal. So Goldy says the vice detail began turning a blind eye to “normal” heterosexual material, but they continued to tell bookstore owners that hard-core depictions of homosexual intercourse (as well as child pornography and other perversities) would be subject to seizure. Complaints about discrimination arose, but Goldy says, “I don’t think we were picking on the homosexuals. I have to equate it to two cars going down the street in a thirty-five-mile-per-hour zone. One’s going forty. One’s going eighty. My job is to make that street as safe as possible. I want them both if I can get them, but if I can't, I’m going to take the one that’s going eighty.... And homosexual material offends an awful lot of people.”

Such was the philosophy that Vasic encountered when he opened his little F Street Bookstore downtown, and it was one with which he strongly disagreed. Vasic says his childhood experience of living under a Communist regime had made him acutely intolerant of discrimination, and by about 1977 he decided to challenge directly the de facto ban on hard-core gay materials by flouting the vice department and openly displaying such materials for sale. The police responded swiftly, charging Vasic with numerous violations of obscenity laws. The stage seemed set for a full-blown court battle, but then both sides seemed to back away from the fight, with the city instead allowing Vasic to plead guilty to reduced charges such as disturbing the peace. Although the police claimed a victory (since they got some convictions), in reality it was Vasic and all the other adult bookstore owners who had won.

From time to time thereafter, at other adult bookstores, the police made token seizures of gay materials through the end of the Seventies. But for all intents, hard-core gay material had become legal. “I don’t know how to explain it, really,” Goldy says, looking back on the sequence of events. “It’s just that all of a sudden, here it was, tons of it. There’s a big demand for it. It’s on shelves in other cities.” San Diego could have tried to argue before local judges or juries that our community standards were stricter, “but that’s tough to fight,” Goldy says. “And then how do you justify it anyway? We do have a big city.”

Free to cater openly to gay customers as well as heterosexual patrons, Vasic’s store flourished, and by 1978 Vasic was able to inaugurate a second F Street Bookstore at the intersection of University Avenue and Florida Street in North Park. That same year civic redevelopment forced Vasic to vacate his original location on F Street downtown, but he opened up a new, much larger facility downtown on Fourth Avenue between F and G streets. By 1980 the business was doing well enough to enable Vasic to resign from Miranda’s Walnut Properties, within which organization he had risen to manage all of the San Diego theaters, including not just the Pussycat theaters but also the Plaza, Cabrillo, Casino, and Balboa movie houses.

The next few years,Vasic continued to expand aggressively. In 1980 he acquired a Hillcrest theater at 1063 University Avenue, which he renamed the Cinema F and transformed into a showcase for gay pornographic films. He branched into El Cajon that year and followed with more outlets in Kearny Mesa and Chula Vista in 1984. Last year he opened a gay bathhouse at 2200 University Avenue, the F Street Health Club, and another bookstore in Escondido. City records indicate that Vasic was actively scouting even more locations for future outlets. He obtained licenses to open adult bookstores in commercial properties at Ninth Avenue and Market Street downtown and on Hancock Street in back of the Sports Arena.

Today the F Street stores aren’t as elegant as Robinson’s department stores (though Vasic has made the comparison), but they defy the image of the classic dirty bookstore. Says one of Vasic’s admiring competitors, “The man has taken [his stores] and almost turned them into erotic boutiques.” Scrupulously clean, most of Vasic’s facilities are brightly lit and equipped with sound systems over which Muzak plays softly. They’re large, and into them is crammed an amazing quantity of merchandise, some 30,000 to 40,000 items per store, including non-sexual products ranging from greeting cards to leather jackets to coffee mugs. Vasic has arranged all these items cleverly, breaking the floor space into various nooks and alcoves that give browsing patrons a sense of privacy, even coziness. You can walk into an F Street Bookstore and for a few seconds not even know you're in a porno shop — though it doesn’t take long to Find that out.

Consider the University Avenue store, for example. Not far from the door, a U-shaped area constructed in the center of the room holds a cornucopia of sex toys. There are body paints and edible panties and lubricants like “Doc Johnson’s Joy Jelly” (Five dollars per orange-flavored tubeful).

Shelf after shelf holds vibrators for prices starting at $9.95 and climbing up to $29.95 (for a multispeed model with various extensions and equipped with a ten-foot electrical cord). Items for the not-so-subtle jokester include Mister Penis Ice Molds ($4.95 each and guaranteed to “enhance any drink”) and party games like “Pin the Macho on the Man.” There are also life-size inflatable plastic dolls like “Nancy” — $34.95 for “soft, fleshlike skin, curvaceous hips and legs, long, silky hair, loving mouth ...” Fifteen dollars more buys a model that also vibrates and has “movable eyes.”

Just beyond this alcove, the entire east end of the building is dominated by magazine displays. Among them, one small stand holds mainstream adult periodicals such as Hustler and Playboy. Although in nonadult stores these rank among the priciest of magazines — Playboy, for example, costs $3.50 — in the adult bookstores they compose the poor man’s literature section. Vasic sells the cheapest of the competing hard-core magazines — slim, forty-page publications — for $6.50, and prices escalate to $14.95 for bigger and glossier works.

In Vasic’s store, browsers can flip through hundreds upon hundreds of such hard-core works, magazines bearing titles like Stud Shock, Serew Girls, Young and Very Hung, and others more bluntly crude. The brightly colored covers offer detailed, close-up views of human genitalia being utilized in almost every conceivable activity — with some key exceptions.

Nowhere in Vasic’s stores can one Find depictions of children engaged in sex, of adults urinating or defecating, of bestiality or necrophilia. It’s still a crime to sell such materials, contend local police, and AMMO, the bookstore owners’ association, went on record as agreeing with that contention several years ago when they adopted a policy that states that the organization will not use common funds reserved for legal expenses to defend members who are arrested for selling any of the above materials. That’s not to say such material isn’t being sold. Certain individuals “may keep it in the trunk of their car, or locked up in the warehouse for ‘special customers,’ ” says police detective Goldy. But he’s convinced that today such illicit sales are isolated and extremely covert, and, “I don’t think Mr. Vasic would get that type of material for his closest friend,” Goldy asserts.

Vasic, in fact, has tended to go the other way, eschewing the sale of some borderline materials that might even be legal. One example is that of nudist magazines, publications that show men, women, and children socializing without any clothes on. Are nude children, however innocently depicted, an example of kiddy porn? The question has not been tested in court, and today such magazines are being sold at a few' stores in San Diego (such as the Hi-Lite bookstore within the Les Girls complex near Rosecrans), but Vasic’s stores are not among them. An area of even broader ambiguity involves sadomasochistic material, which covers a continuum ranging from smiling, naked young women playfully being spanked to realistic depictions of people being tortured. Vasic has refused to carry virtually any of this type of product, even though various gradations of it are common in San Diego. In fact, a more precise definition of where sadomasochistic material goes over the line into illegality may come from a San Diego court soon. One of the few police seizures of allegedly “obscene” materials in recent years occurred in September when sherifFs deputies arrested National City and Lemon Grove store owner Donald Weiner and his son for selling six videos with names such as The Taming of Rebecca, Oriental Techniques of Pain and Pleasure, and Teenage Cycle Sluts. Among the acts shown on those tapes was a woman having her nipples pierced with a safety pin, then urinating because of the pain. Weiner will be arraigned on March 25, at which time a trial date will be set.

For the most part, however, San Diego police and the porn stores seem to have developed a comfortable truce — perhaps because such “self-policing” tends to benefit both sides. As Detective Goldy points out, “Most of these people don’t want to put something on the shelf that they’re going to be arrested for, because you’re talking big money [in legal defense funds].” He says they have strong incentive not to sell materials that will provoke enough public outcry to draw extraordinary attention from the vice squad. “The vice squad’s going to be in [all the stores occasionally],” Goldy says, “but you don’t want ’em camping in there.” Police have a stake in avoiding legal confrontations over borderline material, Goldy explains. “If I make an arrest on borderline material, there’s a better than fifty-fifty chance I’m going to lose that case. And if I lose the case, in effect what’s happening is that the jury or the judge is telling these people [the adult bookstore operators] this is legal material.”

If most adult bookstore owners have resigned themselves to not carrying certain types of material, they’re certainly not suffering from any shortage of merchandise. The gamut of sexual appetites pandered to ranges from predictable standards like swingers, anal sex, and interracial sex to fringe tastes that verge upon the comic: sex with pregnant women, lactating women, fat women, old women. While San Diego bookstores don’t carry child pornography, most do sell a sort of simulated variety, magazines and videos featuring young women (over eighteen years of age) who are dressed to look young (in bobby sox, pigtails, and so forth).

Of the thirty-three stores in San Diego County that specialize in sexually explicit merchandise, twenty-Five are located in the city of San Diego. All but a handful of those within city limits are clustered in two areas: downtown and along the “strips” of University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard. A few foulsmelling, poorly lighted, scrofulous establishments still number among them. But the majority have been evolving toward the example set by Vasic’s F Street stores.

As that evolution has occurred, Vasic’s operation has nonetheless remained unique in several aspects. For one thing, no other local adult bookstore operators have used advertising the way Vasic has. Advertisements for the F Street bookstores run regularly in the San Diego Union and Tribune, the Chula Vista Star News, the Escondido Times-Advocate, local gay publications, and in some smaller community newspapers.

Vasic has been unusually sensitive to community relations. Last fall, for example, his corporation paid about $5000 to a professional opinion-surveying company to interview all the residents and business people around the El Cajon, Chula Vista, North Park, and Kearny Mesa stores, asking if each was aware of any increase in crime or other problems attributable to the stores’ presence. Only nine people out of the 423 interviewed blamed the stores for attracting crime, and none could offer any specific examples. At the same time, company operations manager Tom Wimbish had the interviewers question customers leaving the stores. The results indicated “that our customers are middle-class and upper-middle-class, highly educated, and affluent,” Wimbish says. “Day after day I see the people who come into our stores. The stereotype of the person who patronizes adult bookstores is that of a person who is sleazy, degenerate, and otherwise a pariah. But I assure you I have seen attorneys, judges, intellectuals, leading businessmen who come to our stores because they want to be entertained or enlightened and otherwise uplifted of the spirit.”

Over the years, Vasic’s community-mindedness has been manifest in more than simply a concern not to offend his neighbors. He has donated tens of thousands of dollars to charities ranging from the San Diego County AIDS Assistance Fund to the San Diego Zoo. His charity has also been more personal at times. When gay activist and San Diego Gayzette newspaper founder John Ciaccio contracted AIDS, Vasic responded by paying many of Ciaccio’s living expenses and offering to send the young man to Baris for treatment. Vasic had met Ciaccio when Ciaccio sold him display advertisements for Vasic’s bookstores in the Gayzette, and after Ciaccio finally died last December, Vasic told a Gayzette reporter that he and Ciaccio “never socialized, never broke bread nor had a drink together, (but) despite the fact that our meetings were of a business nature, the loss was like that of a brother.”

Other examples of Vasic’s beneficence to San Diego’s gay community are numerous. Within his own organization, he makes a point of asking prospective employees if they are homosexual, and favors hiring them. (And once hired, Vasic’s employees enjoy benefits that are extraordinary within the adult bookstore industry, including free insurance, a pension plan, profit sharing, and generous salaries. New employees start at four dollars per hour, plus they also earn a four-percent commission on all merchandise sold during their shifts.) The question naturally arises as to why Vasic has been so good to local gays. “He never forgets where his bread is buttered and that the gay community has put a lot into his business,” says another adult bookstore owner who is gay. At the same time, Vasic’s generosity has won him further loyalty. “He could turn the bath (F Street Health Club] into a disco, and it’d be a success. If he turned it into a produce market, we’d all go there tomorrow and buy our bananas.”

This same bookstore owner does see some hypocrisy in one aspect of Vasic’s relationship with local homosexuals. Although the F Street Health Club has

staged weekly “safe sex” AIDS prevention seminars and Vasic himself successfully persuaded local bathhouse operators to eliminate so-called glory holes (holes cut into walls to allow male patrons to engage in anonymous oral sex), Vasic’s Cinema F still has booths with such holes cut into them. Furthermore, at least the North Park F Street Bookstore’s peepshows enjoy a widespread reputation among the local gay community as being a place where homosexual encounters freely transpire.

The gay bookstore owner, like many of Vasic’s competitors, generally praises Vasic warmly. Unlike most people in the world of pornography, where information is jealously guarded, this man says, “Mr. Vasic has never been selfish. I was paying $1.75 for an item, and he said, ‘I get it for $1.35.’ He gave me the name [of the supplier]. Mr. Vasic will help anybody.”

Even police detective Howard Goldy, who makes no effort to hide his repugnance for pornography, has only good things to say about Vasic and his operation. Goldy praises the cleanliness and discreetness of the stores; from the outside, the F Street bookstores give little hint of their salacious contents. Goldy seems to see Vasic himself as being almost a victim of circumstances, drawn into the porno business because it was the only available outlet for his entrepreneurial talents. “He’s one of the best businessmen in town,’’ Goldy states.

While Vasic allowed his operations manager, Tom Wimbish, to give extensive interviews about the business, Vasic himself declined a formal interview, citing an aversion to “self-promotion” and a fear that his competition might somehow feel demeaned by his remarks (“which would never be my intention”). But even though he routinely refuses interviews, he is hardly a recluse. Recently, for example, he attended the annual “Nicky” awards ceremony, which recognizes friends and supporters of local gays, and Vasic had his very attractive young wife, Alma, accept the “non-gay citizen” award bestowed upon him.

Although Vasic guards his personal privacy, he seems like an open book compared to Reuben Sturman. The son of Russian immigrants, Sturman got a business degree from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University and went into business for himself selling candy, tobacco, and comic books wholesale. In the early Fifties he began distributing what were then called “girlie” magazines, and soon he became the first man to apply modern business theories to the porno business, vertically integrating by establishing a chain of distribution centers. Today, according to Lieutenant Don Smith, a Los Angeles vice squad officer who has investigated Sturman's activities for more than a dozen years, Sturman has become the nation’s biggest wholesaler of pornography, controlling about eighty-five distributorships scattered throughout the nation. He holds dominant roles in virtually every other facet of the industry. His companies build peepshow machines, publish hard-core magazines, and produce adult videos. Sturman’s Marques Distributors in Los Angeles make everything from creams to dildos to “penis extenders” and sell them under the “Doc Johnson” name, the world’s biggest manufacturer of such sexual “aids,” according to LAPD’s Lt. Smith. And Sturman reportedly owns more than one hundred retail stores in cities nationwide.

Perhaps the only thing more. remarkable than the breadth of this man’s business activities is the secrecy in which he has cloaked them. Although Sturman’s business empire is too large to be completely anonymous, Smith says Sturman is notorious for going to elaborate lengths to hide his role within that empire. In Los Angeles, for example. Smith says Ronald Braverman, a long-time Sturman associate, is listed as being the owner of Marques. As another example, one Los Angeles company supposedly headed by a man named Harold Green owns sixteen of Los Angeles’s thirty-two adult bookstores, but Smith says in fact Sturman is widely believed to control these stores.

Sturman’s presence in San Diego is equally shadowy. Nowhere does his name appear on any of the official documents for the ten bookstores in San Diego County that numerous industry and law enforcement sources say he owns. Ironically, something that has actively encouraged adult bookstore owners to be secretive about their holdings is the ordinance passed by the San Diego City Council in 1979 that said that “adult entertainment” businesses (including bookstores and peepshows) may not be located within 1000 feet of homes, churches, schools, public parks, social welfare institutions, or other adult entertainment businesses. The ordinance said that existing adult bookstores that did not comply with the new restrictions (that is, those within 1000 feet of the various entities) could continue to operate under their existing owners — but could not be sold to a new owner. Goldy, the police department’s pornography expert, says shortly thereafter many of San Diego’s bookstore owners incorporated their businesses, a move that had two effects. First, it veiled the identity of the people behind the bookstores; the “owner” of the store became the corporation, rather than the individual. This in turn paved the way for the individuals running the corporations to evade the intent of the law. If a bookstore were owned by a corporation at the time the 1000-foot ordinance went into effect, then the people who controlled the corporation could change, without the formal “owner” (i.e., the corporation) changing. Such a bookstore could in effect be sold, although the legal owner — the corporation — remained the same.

Even a lack of incorporation has not stopped stores from changing hands. Although the names on the city business licenses cannot change (because of the 1000-foot ordinance), owners have been known to sell stores secretly. “They’re handshake deals,” says one store owner. No paperwork, contracts, or lawyers are involved; the transactions depend upon buyers’ and sellers’ words of honor. Though such transactions have traditionally been the hallmark of the Mafia, San Diego police do not believe that organized crime figures control pornographic retail operations here. Says Lieutenant Kraig Kessler, head of the San Diego Police Department’s vice squad, “We have no evidence that they [organized crime figures] are involved in the operation of bookstores in San Diego.” Kessler, however, does concede that if the situation ever changed, it would be difficult to discern because of the secrecy of the maneuvers surrounding bookstore ownership.

Numerous industry sources say Sturman has acquired most of his San Diego retail outlets through such clandestine maneuvers, so it’s difficult to piece together a complete history of the porno overlord’s presence here. (The Ohio governor’s crime task force said in 1982 that Sturman “doesn’t appear to have actual membership in any organized crime family, but he does maintain close contact with members of New Jersey’s DeCavalcante family and New York’s Gambino family.”) The greatest mystery surrounds the relationship between Sturman and a man named Robert Marler, whose name appears on the official papers for five of the ten stores believed to be Sturman’s. Although both Marler and his attorneys failed to return calls requesting more information on Marler’s business activities here, certain of his actions have been public.

He apparently first surfaced in San Diego in about 1974, when he appeared at police headquarters and obtained a license to open an adult bookstore on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach. Goldy interviewed him then and says Marler indicated he was an independent operator. But before long Goldy began to suspect that Marler was affiliated with the Pacific Panorama company, an Orange-based peepshow machine distributor. Goldy says some of Marler’s employees in San Diego said they worked for Pacific Panorama, for example. In 1976, when Marler filled out an application for an Oceanside city business license to operate the Fun House 2 adult bookstore there, Marler listed a Pacific Panorama phone number as a place where he could be contacted.

But Marler’s exact connection to Pacific Panorama remains mysterious. When Oceanside police a few years ago called the Pacific Panorama number listed by Marler on his application, they were told that Marler was merely “a friend of the owner.” And a recent call to Pacific Panorama’s new offices in North Hollywood was answered by a receptionist who first said Marler was in, then contradicted that and took a message. A follow-up call was answered by another woman who stated firmly that Marler did not work for Pacific Panorama, though she acknowledged he did visit the offices and picked up messages there.

If Marler’s business ties have been baffling, what slowly became clear throughout the late Seventies was that Marler and/or Pacific Panorama saw San Diego as an excellent place to open adult bookstores. In August of 1975, Marler got a license to open a second store a block and a half west of University and Fairmount avenues (despite its location in East San Diego, Marler named it the Pacific Beach Arcade Number Two). Other “Pacific Beach Arcades” in Marler’s name followed on University a few blocks west of Park Boulevard, on Midway Drive just north of Sports Arena Boulevard, and at Thirtieth and Polk streets. Early in 1980, a veteran of the San Diego adult entertainment business named Bob Smith gained some insight into how eager the Pacific Beach Arcade group was for further expansion when Smith opened an adult bookstore at Fortieth Street and El Cajon Boulevard. Smith had chanced upon the location and was delighted to find the owner willing to accept an adult bookstore as a tenant, a rare occurrence. Smith says he only had the store — which he christened the Peep-a-rama — open for about a month and had invested only about $2300 in it when Marler’s representative contacted him, offering to pay $20,000 for the business. The offer was too good for Smith to resist.

Marler was just beginning to build up his chain when Reuben Sturman’s name first came to Detective Goldy’s attention in the police department’s vice division. At first no one linked the two men. Goldy says that in about 1974 one of his undercover operatives relayed the latest street gossip: that Sturman, the Prince of Pornography himself, would soon be moving to San Diego. Goldy asked how he would know when Sturman arrived, and the operative responded, “When he gets here, you’ll know, because he’ll open up a shop, and it’ll be like a Safeway. And he'll undercut everybody. And if they go out of business, he’ll buy ’em — and just take over the whole city.”

As things developed, however, Sturman’s first contact with the retail side of the adult bookstore business here was much less dramatic, much more subtle. About 1978 a local man named Charlie Morgan, who had previously operated an unsuccessful store in North Park, leased peepshow machines and received loans of money from Sturman’s Los Angeles organization in order to open two bookstores downtown in the Gaslamp Quarter, stores Morgan called Candlelight Books and the West Side (now known as Pleasureland). At first, Sturman was not an owner of those stores, Morgan pointed out in a recent interview. “There was no partnership. There was no collusion. I was the sole owner...But about a year later, word spread among the city’s adult bookstore owners that Morgan had sold these stores to Sturman. Morgan reacted touchily to questions about that transaction. At first he said, “I did not sell Reuben any stores.... I did not sign any contracts with him. I did not receive any funds from him.” A few moments later Morgan explained his defensive attitude by saying, “I know that there’s some independents who are jealous, envious, fearful. And the fact that... I sold out my interest to them [Sturman’s people] to clear the loans that I'd been given....I think there are some people who feel that I am responsible [for Sturman’s entry into San Diego].” Morgan continued, “They were [Sturman’s] first two stores. I didn't sell them to him [Sturman]. But, you know, indications were it was his people because the people in L A. that had his [peepshow] machines, that I was leasing from, are the ones that arranged the sale. So I assume that they were probably part of the parent corporation.”

Not long after this transaction, news circulated that Sturman had acquired another of the Gaslamp Quarter stores, J’s on Fifth Avenue between F and G streets (which has since been renamed Gaslamp Books). In 1982 a new adult bookstore. Midnight Books, opened on the comer of Forty-eighth Street and El Cajon Boulevard (within 1000 feet of residences, thus in defiance of the city’s zoning ordinance), and it bore all the traditional hallmarks characteristic of Sturman’s retail outlets: gaudy signs painted on the facade announcing the twenty-five-cent peepshows and the line of “Doc Johnson’’ products within. In 1983 industry insiders noted that Sturman had opened another store on Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach, but this was topped by the news that raced through the local adult bookstore community that in a major shake-up, Sturman had taken control of the entire Pacific Beach Arcade chain.

Today Marler’s name remains on the San Diego city business licenses for the four Pacific Beach Arcade stores still open (the Garnet store closed several years ago). Records from the secretary of state in Sacramento also show Marler as being the current president of the corporation that owns Peep-a-rama. But numerous knowledgeable sources within the local adult entertainment industry say that Sturman now owns the Peep-a-rama and the Pacific Beach Arcade stores, with one exception. Recently Sturman sold the Pacific Beach Arcade store located at Thirtieth and Polk to the Crypto Technology Corporation, operators of the Crypt bookstore downtown. (Once again, the original license bearing Marler’s name did not change. Such a change would have alerted the city to the fact that its ordinance banning such transactions was being violated.) Sturman also reportedly has been negotiating to sell the Pacific Beach Arcade store at 1407 University. None of these transactions is recorded in public documents, nor did Sturman’s Cleveland headquarters respond to a written query about them.

Sturman’s Cleveland offices ignored a question about why Sturman would choose to sell any of his local stores. But a recent Cleveland Magazine article reported that when the IRS conducted a surprise search of Sturman’s offices last summer, agents found records indicating that Sturman has been selling pieces of his empire. Sturman has plenty of reason to be preoccupied with the IRS. Last summer the U.S. Justice Department filed a sixteen-count indictment against Sturman, his son David, and four other business associates. The indictment, which came after a seven-year criminal investigation, charges that Sturman conspired for nearly twenty years to defraud the government of millions in tax dollars, principally by laundering cash through foreign bank accounts. Sturman is free on a three-million-dollar bond, but the case is scheduled to come to trial this October in Cleveland.

Despite the government’s case against him, Sturman continues to be actively involved with his businesses. He continues to influence strongly his fellow San Diego adult bookstore owners. Though reportedly a man of culture, a patron of the arts whose demeanor can be friendly and engaging, he inspires a curious reaction in many of his smaller competitors here. When they talk about Sturman at all, many do so in tones that range from guarded to outright fearful. One obvious reason is that there’s not a single adult bookstore owner in San Diego who could state with certainty that he doesn’t do any business with Sturman, since Sturmans enterprises produce such a wide range of items and bring them to the retail level through so many disguised channels. Says one store owner, “People are afraid of him because of his power. He could just cut people off. You could just die out there. Paranoia sets in and I'm sure he uses it to his advantage."

Smith, the Los Angeles vice policeman and veteran Sturman-watcher, points out another way Sturman is known to hold power over other bookstores — namely, through his peepshows. Smith says he recently counted some 765 of the adult video arcade machines throughout the City of Los Angeles, about 580 of which were owned by companies controlled by Sturman. Smith says the typical arrangement is for Sturman to install the machines at no cost to the store owner, who otherwise would have to spend anywhere from $22,000 to $60,000 for an eight-booth system composed of state-of-the-art equipment. In exchange for letting the store use his equipment, Sturman typically gets fifty percent of the take from the peepshows.

It’s impossible to say just how many San Diego adult bookstore owners are dependent upon Sturman for their peep-show machines; most refuse to disclose this information, and the machines themselves come in a variety of guises. Overall, however, the community may be somewhat less dependent upon Sturman for the machines than is Los Angeles because of the presence here of several large organizations that have the capital to purchase outright their own peepshow installations. One such organization is Vasic’s F Street Corporation. Another is the Crypto Technology Corporation, which currently owns two San Diego stores, a store in Denver, and a store in Seattle. (Owner Ron Umbaugh also runs a small El Cajon-based wholesaling operation that sells products to retail stores in several states.)

Besides Sturman s stores, the F Street stores, and the Crypt stores, two other local establishments have links to larger organizations. One is the spacious, gleaming Hi-Lite Bookstore located within the Les Girls complex near Rosecrans just west of Old Town. Perhaps the most expensive adult bookstore in San Diego (cover prices for some magazines go up to $38.95), this store also boasts the greatest number of peepshow booths, some forty-six in all. One of the two partners who own the enterprise has other adult bookstores in Missouri. Finally, the other San Diego adult bookstore and peepshow complex that is affiliated with a large organization is Jolar, located just east of College Avenue on University. Part of a national chain, the local Jolar establishment falls into a special, bizarre category all by itself. Formerly located on West Broadway downtown, the entrance into the current building leads into a small room containing the typical pornographic bookstore fare: videos, publications, and sex toys. But at Jolar the action is in the extensive arcade complex, the only one in town to charge an admission (two dollars per person). Some of the roomy peepshow booths in the arcade offer coin-operated videotaped sex; in others the coins activate older style eight-millimeter film reels. The most unusual feature, however, is a group of cubicles arranged in a semicircle around a small central room. When a patron enters and inserts tokens worth fifty cents, an opaque shade rises to reveal a small stage on which stand one or more nude young women, live and very much in the flesh. Small openings above each audience member’s head allow him to offer dollar bills that draw the “dancers” closer to the tipper and into even more explicit lewd poses and activities. A variation on this theme can be found in other, private, little rooms where patrons pay five dollars or more to face a naked young woman sitting behind a glass window, connected to the customer by means of a telephone.

According to a former manager of the Jolar store, the local enterprise is part of a national chain of eighteen establishments, some called Jolar and some called Ellwest Studio Theaters. He says all were owned by a Seattle resident named Larry Trambitas, who a year and a half ago retired to Alaska after selling out to a Detroit-based company. (Editor's note: This turned out to be a fabrication, as Jolar, which began with a downtown shop, was actually owned by Harry Mohney, who was second only to Sturman in the number of U.S. porn enterprises he operated.)

When you subtract all the adult bookstores that are affiliated with larger organizations, the City of San Diego today counts eight “independents” — people who own only one or two adult bookstores — in contrast with the fifty or so who fit that description just fifteen years ago, most of which have vanished because of downtown redevelopment in combination with the implementation of the 1979 city ordinance. About those independents who remain, it is difficult to generalize.

They vary dramatically in personality and in how they chanced to enter the business. Rick Ford, for example, worked for thirteen years as a waiter before becoming a pornography merchant.

In 1977 he was working at the Prince of Wales Room in the Hotel del Coronado and earning $18,000 to $20,000 per year, enough to furnish his home with fine art, he says, when he heard about a business opportunity in downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter. Ford had long been fascinated by San Diego’s red-light district, where one of the more colorful characters was an ex-convict and one-time San Diego massage parlor kingpin named John Antonello. Tired of battling the city, Antonello wanted to move to Las Vegas, and he agreed to sell Ford the adult movie theater on the west side of Fifth Avenue between F and G streets downtown for a bargain $12,000, with only half required in down payment. Another opportunity for Ford opened up about a year later when the city required adult bookstore owners to install rest rooms, and Ford’s next-door neighbor, the owner of Oz’s aduh bookstore, couldn’t comply. Police agreed that Ford’s theater’s rest room would suffice if the two facilities were combined, and Ford thus acquired the bookstore for a mere $7000, renaming it, like his theater, the Lux.

Today Ford boasts that he has reinvested more than $80,000 of his profits into the facilities, and indeed they look as if a discriminating decorator had lavished attention and money upon them. In the bookstore. Ford has raised the ceilings, broken the room into different elevations, and added touches of brass and neon ornamentation that make the Lux the most stylish adult bookstore in town, sleeker and more restrained than Vasic’s crowded erotic emporiums. The doors to Ford’s private office are recessed deep within the premises, and inside are quarters as sumptuous as those of any bank president in town. Walls paneled in dark woods hold spotlighted oil paintings, several television monitors, and two built-in video cassette recorders. Overhead a chandelier glitters, throwing soft light on a well-stocked wet bar in one comer.

Ford himself could pass for a banker; forty-five years old, he dresses conservatively and grooms himself well. He says the reason he has put so much into improving his facilities is simply because he enjoys beautiful surroundings. “I’m that kind of person. I try to do things as tastefully as possible,” he says. The upgrading may have brought him some increase in business from women and couples, but Ford thinks it also has probably turned away other customers. He cites a recent study that indicated that “the people who patronize these stores like the sleazy. Forty-second Street [ in New York City] type thing,” and says he agrees. “I almost think that sex is still in the closet enough so that a guy wants to come in where it’s dirty and ugly because he’s been taught that sex is dirty and ugly.” Ford cites his competitor across the street, Mario Ricardez, whose Dirty Bookstore and Sexy Shop sell much the same merchandise that Ford sells but are located in two tawdry, filthy storefronts harboring peepshows. “He does every bit as much business as I do; no doubt about it.... You see the briefcase guys, the guys in ties going in there.”

Ford talks of having certain professional scruples. Unlike Ricardez, Ford refuses to sell “Coco-Snow,” an imitation cocaine-like powder, sold as incense, which retails at the Sexy Shop for eight dollars for a small bottle. “I can’t morally sell it when that guy is going to turn around and sell it to a sailor on the street for $125.” But competitive pressures have driven Ford to offer other products he personally dislikes, he says, such as the inflatable dolls and the allegedly aphrodisiac “Spanish fly.” Ford says, “It’s such a rip-off. Read what the ingredients are on the label. White pepper. Of course that will make you hot.” Ford reluctantly confirms that the Lux has one of the largest selection of bondage magazines in town, a subspecialty of erotica by which Ford seems saddened. He says he didn’t plan this but he noticed that bondage items sold well. A small- to medium-size store such as his can’t carry everything, and before long he had settled into the sadomasochistic niche.

Ford says there’s no way the Lux could compete across the board with stores like those of Vasic. “He can carry thirty different vibrators. I have room for two.” Besides having less floor space. Ford says he also can’t buy merchandise quite as cheaply as the chains, but he asserts that in this regard the independent adult bookstore owner is not significantly disadvantaged. Indeed, rather than dreaming of opening more stores. Ford has directed his energy toward vertical integration: he recently founded Seabag Productions, a local gay video production company, and In-Hand Distributing to sell gay videos wholesale.

Ford bristled when asked to specify how much his businesses earn him; people fail to understand all the added costs and hassles adult bookstore owners must tolerate in order to make a living, he says. City harassment has been unrelenting. Ford points out, and in the private sector blue-nosed small businessmen — plumbers and printers, for example — sometimes refuse to provide service to the beleaguered porno peddler.

However, another bookstore owner who asked that his name not be used did offer insight into how favorably the adult industry’s profits can compare with mundane, general bookstores. Ordinary (nonsexual) bookstores typically buy their books for between twenty-five and fifty-five percent less than the books’ cover prices. Compare the popular Swedish Erotica magazine series, which is sold by almost every adult bookstore in the county. Individual volumes wholesale for around S3.50 but carry a fifteen-dollar cover price — a markup of more than 400 percent. In practice, every bookstore sells Swedish Eroticas for less than their cover price, with the discounted prices ranging from about five to ten dollars. Even with those discounts, however, the store owners are still making gross profits of between seventy and 200 percent on this item.

Another clue as to just how profitable the pornography business is may have surfaced in an ad in the Wall Street Journal that was published in November of 1984. It described a chain of five San Diego bookstores and a movie house for sale at the asking price of $4.2 million and stated that this business had annual profits of $2.1 million. Among local adult business veterans, everyone assumed that the ad referred to the F Street chain. “Only Vasic matched up with it,” one says. However, Vasic’s corporate attorney, Tom Homann, claims when he read about the ad in Tom Blair’s column in the San Diego Union and asked Vasic about it, the entrepreneur denied outright that it referred to his enterprise. If the ad thus remains somewhat of a mystery, a less equivocal insight into the revenues generated by Vasic’s stores can be gained from one former employee who worked at several of the chain’s outlets. According to him, a single day or evening eight-hour shift at Vasic’s University Avenue store (which is open twenty-four hours a day) would commonly log between $1000 and $1500 in sales — and that figure did not include the peepshow revenues.

With those kinds of sales, it’s not surprising that Vasic’s general manager, Tom Wimbish, would contend that the F Street bookstores don’t rely on peep-shows for their viability. “If we didn’t have them, I am sure we would continue to do well,” Wimbish says. A few owners voice similar confidence, but others sound a different tune. Charlie Morgan, for example, who continues to operate the Little Green Bookstore on Palm Avenue in the South Bay after selling his downtown holdings, puts it bluntly. ‘‘The major part of my profitability, the part that makes it worthwhile for me to be in business, comes from the peepshow business. Without that revenue, the profitability would drop to the point that it’s not worth my time.” If the city ever succeeds at enforcing an ordinance that would put peepshows out of business, Morgan predicts, “I don’t think there’ll be an independent store open a year after... which will leave San Diego’s adult business being controlled by a few people with a lot of money. I think there’s some inherent dangers there.” Morgan’s grim timetable may be an exaggeration, but clearly the trend has gone against the independents in favor of larger operators like Vasic and Stur-man. The city’s zoning ordinance also ironically has favored the corporate pornography merchants over the little guys. “You just about have to be an attorney to open a store anymore. Just about any location is within 1000 feet of a church or residential area,” one owner complains. Someone like Vasic can open new stores “only because he has a hill-time attorney. Other people getting into this don’t have the wherewithal. You’re really discouraged. People won’t lease to you, so you just move on and open a barber shop or a video rental store.”

As the adult bookstores have generally grown more respectable both in the way they look and in the type of materials they carry, competitive pressure on the pom purveyors also has been building in another direction as mainstream businesses have gotten into selling sex. Many men get their Hustler from their local liquor store and their pornographic videos from their local Video Library, enjoying the latter at home with their wives or girlfriends. “I used to say that people who couldn’t succeed in business became smut peddlers,” says Wimbish. “You can't do that anymore. You have to be a good businessman.” Vasic and Sturman are that, beyond question. The question may be whether the remaining smaller competitors are good enough.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Ellen Sturgis Hooper: cited as the most gifted of the Transcendentalist Movement

Ralph Waldo Emerson often commissioned her to write verse for The Dial
Next Article

La Jolla Tide Pools meets Craftsman-style renovation

In its early days, the Kline House operated as La Jolla Sanatorium
F Street Bookstore, North Park - Image by Craig Carlson
F Street Bookstore, North Park

Who rules San Diego’s multimillion-dollar pornography industry?

Ah, to have been an invisible observer in the room where San Diego adult bookstore owners gathered last October 8. The occasion was a meeting of the local pornography merchants’ trade association, AMMO (Adult Movie and Merchants Organization), and about a dozen men attended. Among them were two of the most interesting smut peddlers in the United States, Reuben Sturman and Gojko Vasic.

Reuben Sturman

Sturman, in fact, is the most important pornographer in the country, if not the world, manufacturing and selling hundreds of millions of dollars of sexually oriented goods annually to customers across the United States, Canada, and Europe. (Sturman is in trouble with the federal government; this fall he is scheduled to stand trial on a variety of felony tax-related charges.) In light of his vast business empire, Sturman’s local holdings may seem trivial — but he is apparently the largest adult bookstore owner in San Diego County.

Local authorities have been trying to restrict peepshow operations for almost twenty years.

Vasic is the second largest adult bookstore operator here, founder of the F Street bookstores, and he is credited with revolutionizing marketing in the local industry by creating clean, comfortable stores that aggressively court gays, women, and upper-income customers. Both Sturman and Vasic are complex, enigmatic men. Both have grown rich (though in different orders of magnitude) by exploiting the most intimate of human activities, including some of the most perverse.

Vice officer Howard Goldy

Both are well-known philanthropists, and both are extremely private, even secretive. It would have been fascinating to see them in the same room together, but members of the press were not invited to attend the meeting.

Les Girls complex

Sturman spends a lot of time in Cleveland — the headquarters for his publishing empire — and in Los Angeles, the nation's capital of video pornography production. He rarely makes it down to San Diego, so his presence at the October AMMO meeting surprised many people.

Rick Ford

What drew him here was the topic of how the local store owners should best fight the City of San Diego’s efforts to shut down “peepshows” (nowadays that term generally refers to private booths containing coin-operated, closed-circuit television sets on which patrons can choose from a variety of sexually explicit videos). According to one of the independent bookstore owners who attended the meeting, Sturman was escorted into the room accompanied by two underlings and effortlessly took control of the discussion.

It’s not surprising that Sturman or Vasic or anyone else in the porno world would be worried about the future of peepshows. They have become one of the biggest profit centers in the industry, and one indication of this is that not a single adult bookstore in San Diego operates without peepshows. On a cost-per-minute-of-entertainment basis, peepshows certainly have to rank with the most expensive pornography known to man. Most modern machines click on for between one and two minutes per quarter (the amount of time varies from store to store), during which customers can switch between many different videos: men orally copulating men on this channel; nude women bound by ropes on the next; an orgy on the third, and on and on. This means peepshow patrons are paying between thirty and sixty dollars per hour for this amusement.

Of course few patrons “peep” for more than a few minutes at a time, and no peepshow booths are occupied every minute around the clock. In fact, local peepshow revenues appear to vary tremendously. A conservative estimate, based on interviews with several industry insiders here, is that revenues per booth per day range from five to fifty dollars. Most stores have about eight booths, and the busiest adult arcades in San Diego have more. For example, the Hi-Lite bookstore within the Les Girls complex near Rosecrans has forty-five such peepshow booths. If peepshows were banished overnight, “it would certainly take the cream off the ’ top [of the business],” according to one local owner, who added, “they pay the rent.”

Fully aware of this, local authorities have been trying to restrict peepshow operations for almost twenty years. At one time or another, vice police have required peepshow operators to maintain minimum levels of light within the cubicles, to give the peepshow patrons a clear view of the store exit, to cut off the bottom few feet of the doors on the booths, to make the cubicles fire-resistant, and more. In September of 1984, the City of San Diego passed an ordinance requiring that all doors on video arcades showing sexually oriented material be removed altogether. Obviously, removing the doors would rob the peepshow patron of his privacy, and privacy forms the heart of the peepshows' appeal, conferring anonymity as it does, enabling some patrons to masturbate uninhibited and others to engage in homosexual intercourse in the booths. So the peep-show operators parried the city’s move by including some nonsexual video choices alongside the erotic offerings and claiming that the presence of these videos excluded the peepshows from the law. Now the city is readying a revision of the ordinance, which would force any video arcade (be its content sexual or otherwise) to go doorless.

This threat is one of the things that drew Sturman to San Diego last October. Sixty-one years old, the master pornographer looks years younger, according to those who have met him. He showed up at the recent AMMO meeting casually but neatly attired in a denim leisure suit. Brandishing a big cigar, he described how he had modified his peepshows in Phoenix in an attempt to outfox the no-door laws there. He reviewed some legal work prepared by the adult bookstore owners’ San Diego attorney and curtly pronounced it only adequate. AMMO should instead use his attorneys in Los Angeles, he said. Even the normally outgoing, talkative Vasic reportedly listened submissively to the big man's words of wisdom. “He [Sturman] is the only one I’ve seen who ever shut up Vasic,” says one of the other people present, in some amazement.

Over the years, Gojko (Greg) Vasic, who is in his early forties, has grown accustomed to having his peers in San Diego defer to him. His is one of the more impressive business successes in this city. A native of Yugoslavia, Vasic immigrated to East Chicago, Indiana along with his family, then later made his way alone to San Diego. He first surfaced in San Diego's adult entertainment world earning minimum wages while working as doorman for the late Vince Miranda’s Pussycat Theater downtown on Fourth Avenue, now the site of the Horton Plaza parking garage. His duties included sweeping the sidewalk, and every time he did so Vasic could not help but notice the steady stream of customers going into the X-rated Curious Bookstore next door to the theater. Although Vasic had never before visited an adult bookstore, he could see the potential for making money at such an enterprise, so one day he asked the neighboring store’s owner if any adult bookstores in San Diego were for sale. In this fashion, Vasic heard that a scruffy hole in the wall between Third and Fourth avenues on F Street, called the A & B Cattle Company, could be had for a price of $8000. This was in 1974.

“It looked like it was fit for cattle,” Vasic today recalls of the little bookstore on F Street. But he had a vision of how much better the store would do if it were cleaned and recarpeted. Inspired by that vision, Vasic called his parents back in Indiana and persuaded them to lend him the money to acquire the adult bookstore. He was barely thirty years old at the time. Although he was in business for himself, Vasic decided that for a while he would also continue to hold on to his paying job with the Pussycat chain.

People who knew him then say Vasic demonstrated a pattern of frugality and perseverance. And although he himself is not homosexual, it didn’t take Vasic long to perceive that San Diego’s homosexual community had an appetite for gay pornography, which at the time was not being very well served. Back then, just a dozen years ago, the entire question of what types of pornography could legally be sold here was still in flux. One person who was trying to keep current with the fast-moving changes in society’s attitude toward sex was San Diego police detective Howard Goldy. In 1972, shortly after Goldy had transferred into the department’s vice unit, he received an extraordinary assignment: he was to become an expert on pornography and obscenity, using those talents to guide the department in its prosecution of local porn purveyors. He began to study case law on pornography dating back to 1663 and traveled throughout the state, surveying the sexually explicit materials being sold in various communities. Here in San Diego, Goldy began to get acquainted with the local porn dealers, who he says differed dramatically from most of the adult bookstore owners today.

In the early 1970s, Goldy says, “A lot of these people had no regard for the law.” They would make some minimal effort to avoid being arrested by hiding hard-core materials when they knew the vice squad officers were coming, but “they knew that the [vice squad] worked till four o’clock, so at five o’clock, the dirty books came-out... and went on the shelves.” In those days the shops truly deserved to be known as dirty bookstores, according to the detective. “The stores themselves were just physically dirty,” he recalls. Poorly lighted, most smelled bad and were tended by unkempt clerks.

Magazines were among their hottest-selling items, yet the overall quality of those was terrible: smudged photos of ugly people awkwardly positioned in smutty postures.

Ironically, because of all the sales under the counter or after 4:00 p.m., Goldy says it was easier in the early 1970s than it is today for a San Diegan to purchase depictions of the most extreme sexual perversities: sex with animals, child pornography, sex with dead bodies, and the like. “Back in the early days, anytime you’d get a search warrant, you’d find tons of stuff in the back room,” he recalls. Of course, police confiscated such deviant material whenever they found it, but in the early 1970s the police felt they had the duty according to the law to seize even depictions of explicit standard male-female sex. By about 1974, however, the city had taken to trial several cases involving such heterosexual material, only to lose once and find juries unable to reach any decision in the other instances. The juries in effect were indicating to police that such material was no longer “obscene,” thus no longer illegal. So Goldy says the vice detail began turning a blind eye to “normal” heterosexual material, but they continued to tell bookstore owners that hard-core depictions of homosexual intercourse (as well as child pornography and other perversities) would be subject to seizure. Complaints about discrimination arose, but Goldy says, “I don’t think we were picking on the homosexuals. I have to equate it to two cars going down the street in a thirty-five-mile-per-hour zone. One’s going forty. One’s going eighty. My job is to make that street as safe as possible. I want them both if I can get them, but if I can't, I’m going to take the one that’s going eighty.... And homosexual material offends an awful lot of people.”

Such was the philosophy that Vasic encountered when he opened his little F Street Bookstore downtown, and it was one with which he strongly disagreed. Vasic says his childhood experience of living under a Communist regime had made him acutely intolerant of discrimination, and by about 1977 he decided to challenge directly the de facto ban on hard-core gay materials by flouting the vice department and openly displaying such materials for sale. The police responded swiftly, charging Vasic with numerous violations of obscenity laws. The stage seemed set for a full-blown court battle, but then both sides seemed to back away from the fight, with the city instead allowing Vasic to plead guilty to reduced charges such as disturbing the peace. Although the police claimed a victory (since they got some convictions), in reality it was Vasic and all the other adult bookstore owners who had won.

From time to time thereafter, at other adult bookstores, the police made token seizures of gay materials through the end of the Seventies. But for all intents, hard-core gay material had become legal. “I don’t know how to explain it, really,” Goldy says, looking back on the sequence of events. “It’s just that all of a sudden, here it was, tons of it. There’s a big demand for it. It’s on shelves in other cities.” San Diego could have tried to argue before local judges or juries that our community standards were stricter, “but that’s tough to fight,” Goldy says. “And then how do you justify it anyway? We do have a big city.”

Free to cater openly to gay customers as well as heterosexual patrons, Vasic’s store flourished, and by 1978 Vasic was able to inaugurate a second F Street Bookstore at the intersection of University Avenue and Florida Street in North Park. That same year civic redevelopment forced Vasic to vacate his original location on F Street downtown, but he opened up a new, much larger facility downtown on Fourth Avenue between F and G streets. By 1980 the business was doing well enough to enable Vasic to resign from Miranda’s Walnut Properties, within which organization he had risen to manage all of the San Diego theaters, including not just the Pussycat theaters but also the Plaza, Cabrillo, Casino, and Balboa movie houses.

The next few years,Vasic continued to expand aggressively. In 1980 he acquired a Hillcrest theater at 1063 University Avenue, which he renamed the Cinema F and transformed into a showcase for gay pornographic films. He branched into El Cajon that year and followed with more outlets in Kearny Mesa and Chula Vista in 1984. Last year he opened a gay bathhouse at 2200 University Avenue, the F Street Health Club, and another bookstore in Escondido. City records indicate that Vasic was actively scouting even more locations for future outlets. He obtained licenses to open adult bookstores in commercial properties at Ninth Avenue and Market Street downtown and on Hancock Street in back of the Sports Arena.

Today the F Street stores aren’t as elegant as Robinson’s department stores (though Vasic has made the comparison), but they defy the image of the classic dirty bookstore. Says one of Vasic’s admiring competitors, “The man has taken [his stores] and almost turned them into erotic boutiques.” Scrupulously clean, most of Vasic’s facilities are brightly lit and equipped with sound systems over which Muzak plays softly. They’re large, and into them is crammed an amazing quantity of merchandise, some 30,000 to 40,000 items per store, including non-sexual products ranging from greeting cards to leather jackets to coffee mugs. Vasic has arranged all these items cleverly, breaking the floor space into various nooks and alcoves that give browsing patrons a sense of privacy, even coziness. You can walk into an F Street Bookstore and for a few seconds not even know you're in a porno shop — though it doesn’t take long to Find that out.

Consider the University Avenue store, for example. Not far from the door, a U-shaped area constructed in the center of the room holds a cornucopia of sex toys. There are body paints and edible panties and lubricants like “Doc Johnson’s Joy Jelly” (Five dollars per orange-flavored tubeful).

Shelf after shelf holds vibrators for prices starting at $9.95 and climbing up to $29.95 (for a multispeed model with various extensions and equipped with a ten-foot electrical cord). Items for the not-so-subtle jokester include Mister Penis Ice Molds ($4.95 each and guaranteed to “enhance any drink”) and party games like “Pin the Macho on the Man.” There are also life-size inflatable plastic dolls like “Nancy” — $34.95 for “soft, fleshlike skin, curvaceous hips and legs, long, silky hair, loving mouth ...” Fifteen dollars more buys a model that also vibrates and has “movable eyes.”

Just beyond this alcove, the entire east end of the building is dominated by magazine displays. Among them, one small stand holds mainstream adult periodicals such as Hustler and Playboy. Although in nonadult stores these rank among the priciest of magazines — Playboy, for example, costs $3.50 — in the adult bookstores they compose the poor man’s literature section. Vasic sells the cheapest of the competing hard-core magazines — slim, forty-page publications — for $6.50, and prices escalate to $14.95 for bigger and glossier works.

In Vasic’s store, browsers can flip through hundreds upon hundreds of such hard-core works, magazines bearing titles like Stud Shock, Serew Girls, Young and Very Hung, and others more bluntly crude. The brightly colored covers offer detailed, close-up views of human genitalia being utilized in almost every conceivable activity — with some key exceptions.

Nowhere in Vasic’s stores can one Find depictions of children engaged in sex, of adults urinating or defecating, of bestiality or necrophilia. It’s still a crime to sell such materials, contend local police, and AMMO, the bookstore owners’ association, went on record as agreeing with that contention several years ago when they adopted a policy that states that the organization will not use common funds reserved for legal expenses to defend members who are arrested for selling any of the above materials. That’s not to say such material isn’t being sold. Certain individuals “may keep it in the trunk of their car, or locked up in the warehouse for ‘special customers,’ ” says police detective Goldy. But he’s convinced that today such illicit sales are isolated and extremely covert, and, “I don’t think Mr. Vasic would get that type of material for his closest friend,” Goldy asserts.

Vasic, in fact, has tended to go the other way, eschewing the sale of some borderline materials that might even be legal. One example is that of nudist magazines, publications that show men, women, and children socializing without any clothes on. Are nude children, however innocently depicted, an example of kiddy porn? The question has not been tested in court, and today such magazines are being sold at a few' stores in San Diego (such as the Hi-Lite bookstore within the Les Girls complex near Rosecrans), but Vasic’s stores are not among them. An area of even broader ambiguity involves sadomasochistic material, which covers a continuum ranging from smiling, naked young women playfully being spanked to realistic depictions of people being tortured. Vasic has refused to carry virtually any of this type of product, even though various gradations of it are common in San Diego. In fact, a more precise definition of where sadomasochistic material goes over the line into illegality may come from a San Diego court soon. One of the few police seizures of allegedly “obscene” materials in recent years occurred in September when sherifFs deputies arrested National City and Lemon Grove store owner Donald Weiner and his son for selling six videos with names such as The Taming of Rebecca, Oriental Techniques of Pain and Pleasure, and Teenage Cycle Sluts. Among the acts shown on those tapes was a woman having her nipples pierced with a safety pin, then urinating because of the pain. Weiner will be arraigned on March 25, at which time a trial date will be set.

For the most part, however, San Diego police and the porn stores seem to have developed a comfortable truce — perhaps because such “self-policing” tends to benefit both sides. As Detective Goldy points out, “Most of these people don’t want to put something on the shelf that they’re going to be arrested for, because you’re talking big money [in legal defense funds].” He says they have strong incentive not to sell materials that will provoke enough public outcry to draw extraordinary attention from the vice squad. “The vice squad’s going to be in [all the stores occasionally],” Goldy says, “but you don’t want ’em camping in there.” Police have a stake in avoiding legal confrontations over borderline material, Goldy explains. “If I make an arrest on borderline material, there’s a better than fifty-fifty chance I’m going to lose that case. And if I lose the case, in effect what’s happening is that the jury or the judge is telling these people [the adult bookstore operators] this is legal material.”

If most adult bookstore owners have resigned themselves to not carrying certain types of material, they’re certainly not suffering from any shortage of merchandise. The gamut of sexual appetites pandered to ranges from predictable standards like swingers, anal sex, and interracial sex to fringe tastes that verge upon the comic: sex with pregnant women, lactating women, fat women, old women. While San Diego bookstores don’t carry child pornography, most do sell a sort of simulated variety, magazines and videos featuring young women (over eighteen years of age) who are dressed to look young (in bobby sox, pigtails, and so forth).

Of the thirty-three stores in San Diego County that specialize in sexually explicit merchandise, twenty-Five are located in the city of San Diego. All but a handful of those within city limits are clustered in two areas: downtown and along the “strips” of University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard. A few foulsmelling, poorly lighted, scrofulous establishments still number among them. But the majority have been evolving toward the example set by Vasic’s F Street stores.

As that evolution has occurred, Vasic’s operation has nonetheless remained unique in several aspects. For one thing, no other local adult bookstore operators have used advertising the way Vasic has. Advertisements for the F Street bookstores run regularly in the San Diego Union and Tribune, the Chula Vista Star News, the Escondido Times-Advocate, local gay publications, and in some smaller community newspapers.

Vasic has been unusually sensitive to community relations. Last fall, for example, his corporation paid about $5000 to a professional opinion-surveying company to interview all the residents and business people around the El Cajon, Chula Vista, North Park, and Kearny Mesa stores, asking if each was aware of any increase in crime or other problems attributable to the stores’ presence. Only nine people out of the 423 interviewed blamed the stores for attracting crime, and none could offer any specific examples. At the same time, company operations manager Tom Wimbish had the interviewers question customers leaving the stores. The results indicated “that our customers are middle-class and upper-middle-class, highly educated, and affluent,” Wimbish says. “Day after day I see the people who come into our stores. The stereotype of the person who patronizes adult bookstores is that of a person who is sleazy, degenerate, and otherwise a pariah. But I assure you I have seen attorneys, judges, intellectuals, leading businessmen who come to our stores because they want to be entertained or enlightened and otherwise uplifted of the spirit.”

Over the years, Vasic’s community-mindedness has been manifest in more than simply a concern not to offend his neighbors. He has donated tens of thousands of dollars to charities ranging from the San Diego County AIDS Assistance Fund to the San Diego Zoo. His charity has also been more personal at times. When gay activist and San Diego Gayzette newspaper founder John Ciaccio contracted AIDS, Vasic responded by paying many of Ciaccio’s living expenses and offering to send the young man to Baris for treatment. Vasic had met Ciaccio when Ciaccio sold him display advertisements for Vasic’s bookstores in the Gayzette, and after Ciaccio finally died last December, Vasic told a Gayzette reporter that he and Ciaccio “never socialized, never broke bread nor had a drink together, (but) despite the fact that our meetings were of a business nature, the loss was like that of a brother.”

Other examples of Vasic’s beneficence to San Diego’s gay community are numerous. Within his own organization, he makes a point of asking prospective employees if they are homosexual, and favors hiring them. (And once hired, Vasic’s employees enjoy benefits that are extraordinary within the adult bookstore industry, including free insurance, a pension plan, profit sharing, and generous salaries. New employees start at four dollars per hour, plus they also earn a four-percent commission on all merchandise sold during their shifts.) The question naturally arises as to why Vasic has been so good to local gays. “He never forgets where his bread is buttered and that the gay community has put a lot into his business,” says another adult bookstore owner who is gay. At the same time, Vasic’s generosity has won him further loyalty. “He could turn the bath (F Street Health Club] into a disco, and it’d be a success. If he turned it into a produce market, we’d all go there tomorrow and buy our bananas.”

This same bookstore owner does see some hypocrisy in one aspect of Vasic’s relationship with local homosexuals. Although the F Street Health Club has

staged weekly “safe sex” AIDS prevention seminars and Vasic himself successfully persuaded local bathhouse operators to eliminate so-called glory holes (holes cut into walls to allow male patrons to engage in anonymous oral sex), Vasic’s Cinema F still has booths with such holes cut into them. Furthermore, at least the North Park F Street Bookstore’s peepshows enjoy a widespread reputation among the local gay community as being a place where homosexual encounters freely transpire.

The gay bookstore owner, like many of Vasic’s competitors, generally praises Vasic warmly. Unlike most people in the world of pornography, where information is jealously guarded, this man says, “Mr. Vasic has never been selfish. I was paying $1.75 for an item, and he said, ‘I get it for $1.35.’ He gave me the name [of the supplier]. Mr. Vasic will help anybody.”

Even police detective Howard Goldy, who makes no effort to hide his repugnance for pornography, has only good things to say about Vasic and his operation. Goldy praises the cleanliness and discreetness of the stores; from the outside, the F Street bookstores give little hint of their salacious contents. Goldy seems to see Vasic himself as being almost a victim of circumstances, drawn into the porno business because it was the only available outlet for his entrepreneurial talents. “He’s one of the best businessmen in town,’’ Goldy states.

While Vasic allowed his operations manager, Tom Wimbish, to give extensive interviews about the business, Vasic himself declined a formal interview, citing an aversion to “self-promotion” and a fear that his competition might somehow feel demeaned by his remarks (“which would never be my intention”). But even though he routinely refuses interviews, he is hardly a recluse. Recently, for example, he attended the annual “Nicky” awards ceremony, which recognizes friends and supporters of local gays, and Vasic had his very attractive young wife, Alma, accept the “non-gay citizen” award bestowed upon him.

Although Vasic guards his personal privacy, he seems like an open book compared to Reuben Sturman. The son of Russian immigrants, Sturman got a business degree from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University and went into business for himself selling candy, tobacco, and comic books wholesale. In the early Fifties he began distributing what were then called “girlie” magazines, and soon he became the first man to apply modern business theories to the porno business, vertically integrating by establishing a chain of distribution centers. Today, according to Lieutenant Don Smith, a Los Angeles vice squad officer who has investigated Sturman's activities for more than a dozen years, Sturman has become the nation’s biggest wholesaler of pornography, controlling about eighty-five distributorships scattered throughout the nation. He holds dominant roles in virtually every other facet of the industry. His companies build peepshow machines, publish hard-core magazines, and produce adult videos. Sturman’s Marques Distributors in Los Angeles make everything from creams to dildos to “penis extenders” and sell them under the “Doc Johnson” name, the world’s biggest manufacturer of such sexual “aids,” according to LAPD’s Lt. Smith. And Sturman reportedly owns more than one hundred retail stores in cities nationwide.

Perhaps the only thing more. remarkable than the breadth of this man’s business activities is the secrecy in which he has cloaked them. Although Sturman’s business empire is too large to be completely anonymous, Smith says Sturman is notorious for going to elaborate lengths to hide his role within that empire. In Los Angeles, for example. Smith says Ronald Braverman, a long-time Sturman associate, is listed as being the owner of Marques. As another example, one Los Angeles company supposedly headed by a man named Harold Green owns sixteen of Los Angeles’s thirty-two adult bookstores, but Smith says in fact Sturman is widely believed to control these stores.

Sturman’s presence in San Diego is equally shadowy. Nowhere does his name appear on any of the official documents for the ten bookstores in San Diego County that numerous industry and law enforcement sources say he owns. Ironically, something that has actively encouraged adult bookstore owners to be secretive about their holdings is the ordinance passed by the San Diego City Council in 1979 that said that “adult entertainment” businesses (including bookstores and peepshows) may not be located within 1000 feet of homes, churches, schools, public parks, social welfare institutions, or other adult entertainment businesses. The ordinance said that existing adult bookstores that did not comply with the new restrictions (that is, those within 1000 feet of the various entities) could continue to operate under their existing owners — but could not be sold to a new owner. Goldy, the police department’s pornography expert, says shortly thereafter many of San Diego’s bookstore owners incorporated their businesses, a move that had two effects. First, it veiled the identity of the people behind the bookstores; the “owner” of the store became the corporation, rather than the individual. This in turn paved the way for the individuals running the corporations to evade the intent of the law. If a bookstore were owned by a corporation at the time the 1000-foot ordinance went into effect, then the people who controlled the corporation could change, without the formal “owner” (i.e., the corporation) changing. Such a bookstore could in effect be sold, although the legal owner — the corporation — remained the same.

Even a lack of incorporation has not stopped stores from changing hands. Although the names on the city business licenses cannot change (because of the 1000-foot ordinance), owners have been known to sell stores secretly. “They’re handshake deals,” says one store owner. No paperwork, contracts, or lawyers are involved; the transactions depend upon buyers’ and sellers’ words of honor. Though such transactions have traditionally been the hallmark of the Mafia, San Diego police do not believe that organized crime figures control pornographic retail operations here. Says Lieutenant Kraig Kessler, head of the San Diego Police Department’s vice squad, “We have no evidence that they [organized crime figures] are involved in the operation of bookstores in San Diego.” Kessler, however, does concede that if the situation ever changed, it would be difficult to discern because of the secrecy of the maneuvers surrounding bookstore ownership.

Numerous industry sources say Sturman has acquired most of his San Diego retail outlets through such clandestine maneuvers, so it’s difficult to piece together a complete history of the porno overlord’s presence here. (The Ohio governor’s crime task force said in 1982 that Sturman “doesn’t appear to have actual membership in any organized crime family, but he does maintain close contact with members of New Jersey’s DeCavalcante family and New York’s Gambino family.”) The greatest mystery surrounds the relationship between Sturman and a man named Robert Marler, whose name appears on the official papers for five of the ten stores believed to be Sturman’s. Although both Marler and his attorneys failed to return calls requesting more information on Marler’s business activities here, certain of his actions have been public.

He apparently first surfaced in San Diego in about 1974, when he appeared at police headquarters and obtained a license to open an adult bookstore on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach. Goldy interviewed him then and says Marler indicated he was an independent operator. But before long Goldy began to suspect that Marler was affiliated with the Pacific Panorama company, an Orange-based peepshow machine distributor. Goldy says some of Marler’s employees in San Diego said they worked for Pacific Panorama, for example. In 1976, when Marler filled out an application for an Oceanside city business license to operate the Fun House 2 adult bookstore there, Marler listed a Pacific Panorama phone number as a place where he could be contacted.

But Marler’s exact connection to Pacific Panorama remains mysterious. When Oceanside police a few years ago called the Pacific Panorama number listed by Marler on his application, they were told that Marler was merely “a friend of the owner.” And a recent call to Pacific Panorama’s new offices in North Hollywood was answered by a receptionist who first said Marler was in, then contradicted that and took a message. A follow-up call was answered by another woman who stated firmly that Marler did not work for Pacific Panorama, though she acknowledged he did visit the offices and picked up messages there.

If Marler’s business ties have been baffling, what slowly became clear throughout the late Seventies was that Marler and/or Pacific Panorama saw San Diego as an excellent place to open adult bookstores. In August of 1975, Marler got a license to open a second store a block and a half west of University and Fairmount avenues (despite its location in East San Diego, Marler named it the Pacific Beach Arcade Number Two). Other “Pacific Beach Arcades” in Marler’s name followed on University a few blocks west of Park Boulevard, on Midway Drive just north of Sports Arena Boulevard, and at Thirtieth and Polk streets. Early in 1980, a veteran of the San Diego adult entertainment business named Bob Smith gained some insight into how eager the Pacific Beach Arcade group was for further expansion when Smith opened an adult bookstore at Fortieth Street and El Cajon Boulevard. Smith had chanced upon the location and was delighted to find the owner willing to accept an adult bookstore as a tenant, a rare occurrence. Smith says he only had the store — which he christened the Peep-a-rama — open for about a month and had invested only about $2300 in it when Marler’s representative contacted him, offering to pay $20,000 for the business. The offer was too good for Smith to resist.

Marler was just beginning to build up his chain when Reuben Sturman’s name first came to Detective Goldy’s attention in the police department’s vice division. At first no one linked the two men. Goldy says that in about 1974 one of his undercover operatives relayed the latest street gossip: that Sturman, the Prince of Pornography himself, would soon be moving to San Diego. Goldy asked how he would know when Sturman arrived, and the operative responded, “When he gets here, you’ll know, because he’ll open up a shop, and it’ll be like a Safeway. And he'll undercut everybody. And if they go out of business, he’ll buy ’em — and just take over the whole city.”

As things developed, however, Sturman’s first contact with the retail side of the adult bookstore business here was much less dramatic, much more subtle. About 1978 a local man named Charlie Morgan, who had previously operated an unsuccessful store in North Park, leased peepshow machines and received loans of money from Sturman’s Los Angeles organization in order to open two bookstores downtown in the Gaslamp Quarter, stores Morgan called Candlelight Books and the West Side (now known as Pleasureland). At first, Sturman was not an owner of those stores, Morgan pointed out in a recent interview. “There was no partnership. There was no collusion. I was the sole owner...But about a year later, word spread among the city’s adult bookstore owners that Morgan had sold these stores to Sturman. Morgan reacted touchily to questions about that transaction. At first he said, “I did not sell Reuben any stores.... I did not sign any contracts with him. I did not receive any funds from him.” A few moments later Morgan explained his defensive attitude by saying, “I know that there’s some independents who are jealous, envious, fearful. And the fact that... I sold out my interest to them [Sturman’s people] to clear the loans that I'd been given....I think there are some people who feel that I am responsible [for Sturman’s entry into San Diego].” Morgan continued, “They were [Sturman’s] first two stores. I didn't sell them to him [Sturman]. But, you know, indications were it was his people because the people in L A. that had his [peepshow] machines, that I was leasing from, are the ones that arranged the sale. So I assume that they were probably part of the parent corporation.”

Not long after this transaction, news circulated that Sturman had acquired another of the Gaslamp Quarter stores, J’s on Fifth Avenue between F and G streets (which has since been renamed Gaslamp Books). In 1982 a new adult bookstore. Midnight Books, opened on the comer of Forty-eighth Street and El Cajon Boulevard (within 1000 feet of residences, thus in defiance of the city’s zoning ordinance), and it bore all the traditional hallmarks characteristic of Sturman’s retail outlets: gaudy signs painted on the facade announcing the twenty-five-cent peepshows and the line of “Doc Johnson’’ products within. In 1983 industry insiders noted that Sturman had opened another store on Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach, but this was topped by the news that raced through the local adult bookstore community that in a major shake-up, Sturman had taken control of the entire Pacific Beach Arcade chain.

Today Marler’s name remains on the San Diego city business licenses for the four Pacific Beach Arcade stores still open (the Garnet store closed several years ago). Records from the secretary of state in Sacramento also show Marler as being the current president of the corporation that owns Peep-a-rama. But numerous knowledgeable sources within the local adult entertainment industry say that Sturman now owns the Peep-a-rama and the Pacific Beach Arcade stores, with one exception. Recently Sturman sold the Pacific Beach Arcade store located at Thirtieth and Polk to the Crypto Technology Corporation, operators of the Crypt bookstore downtown. (Once again, the original license bearing Marler’s name did not change. Such a change would have alerted the city to the fact that its ordinance banning such transactions was being violated.) Sturman also reportedly has been negotiating to sell the Pacific Beach Arcade store at 1407 University. None of these transactions is recorded in public documents, nor did Sturman’s Cleveland headquarters respond to a written query about them.

Sturman’s Cleveland offices ignored a question about why Sturman would choose to sell any of his local stores. But a recent Cleveland Magazine article reported that when the IRS conducted a surprise search of Sturman’s offices last summer, agents found records indicating that Sturman has been selling pieces of his empire. Sturman has plenty of reason to be preoccupied with the IRS. Last summer the U.S. Justice Department filed a sixteen-count indictment against Sturman, his son David, and four other business associates. The indictment, which came after a seven-year criminal investigation, charges that Sturman conspired for nearly twenty years to defraud the government of millions in tax dollars, principally by laundering cash through foreign bank accounts. Sturman is free on a three-million-dollar bond, but the case is scheduled to come to trial this October in Cleveland.

Despite the government’s case against him, Sturman continues to be actively involved with his businesses. He continues to influence strongly his fellow San Diego adult bookstore owners. Though reportedly a man of culture, a patron of the arts whose demeanor can be friendly and engaging, he inspires a curious reaction in many of his smaller competitors here. When they talk about Sturman at all, many do so in tones that range from guarded to outright fearful. One obvious reason is that there’s not a single adult bookstore owner in San Diego who could state with certainty that he doesn’t do any business with Sturman, since Sturmans enterprises produce such a wide range of items and bring them to the retail level through so many disguised channels. Says one store owner, “People are afraid of him because of his power. He could just cut people off. You could just die out there. Paranoia sets in and I'm sure he uses it to his advantage."

Smith, the Los Angeles vice policeman and veteran Sturman-watcher, points out another way Sturman is known to hold power over other bookstores — namely, through his peepshows. Smith says he recently counted some 765 of the adult video arcade machines throughout the City of Los Angeles, about 580 of which were owned by companies controlled by Sturman. Smith says the typical arrangement is for Sturman to install the machines at no cost to the store owner, who otherwise would have to spend anywhere from $22,000 to $60,000 for an eight-booth system composed of state-of-the-art equipment. In exchange for letting the store use his equipment, Sturman typically gets fifty percent of the take from the peepshows.

It’s impossible to say just how many San Diego adult bookstore owners are dependent upon Sturman for their peep-show machines; most refuse to disclose this information, and the machines themselves come in a variety of guises. Overall, however, the community may be somewhat less dependent upon Sturman for the machines than is Los Angeles because of the presence here of several large organizations that have the capital to purchase outright their own peepshow installations. One such organization is Vasic’s F Street Corporation. Another is the Crypto Technology Corporation, which currently owns two San Diego stores, a store in Denver, and a store in Seattle. (Owner Ron Umbaugh also runs a small El Cajon-based wholesaling operation that sells products to retail stores in several states.)

Besides Sturman s stores, the F Street stores, and the Crypt stores, two other local establishments have links to larger organizations. One is the spacious, gleaming Hi-Lite Bookstore located within the Les Girls complex near Rosecrans just west of Old Town. Perhaps the most expensive adult bookstore in San Diego (cover prices for some magazines go up to $38.95), this store also boasts the greatest number of peepshow booths, some forty-six in all. One of the two partners who own the enterprise has other adult bookstores in Missouri. Finally, the other San Diego adult bookstore and peepshow complex that is affiliated with a large organization is Jolar, located just east of College Avenue on University. Part of a national chain, the local Jolar establishment falls into a special, bizarre category all by itself. Formerly located on West Broadway downtown, the entrance into the current building leads into a small room containing the typical pornographic bookstore fare: videos, publications, and sex toys. But at Jolar the action is in the extensive arcade complex, the only one in town to charge an admission (two dollars per person). Some of the roomy peepshow booths in the arcade offer coin-operated videotaped sex; in others the coins activate older style eight-millimeter film reels. The most unusual feature, however, is a group of cubicles arranged in a semicircle around a small central room. When a patron enters and inserts tokens worth fifty cents, an opaque shade rises to reveal a small stage on which stand one or more nude young women, live and very much in the flesh. Small openings above each audience member’s head allow him to offer dollar bills that draw the “dancers” closer to the tipper and into even more explicit lewd poses and activities. A variation on this theme can be found in other, private, little rooms where patrons pay five dollars or more to face a naked young woman sitting behind a glass window, connected to the customer by means of a telephone.

According to a former manager of the Jolar store, the local enterprise is part of a national chain of eighteen establishments, some called Jolar and some called Ellwest Studio Theaters. He says all were owned by a Seattle resident named Larry Trambitas, who a year and a half ago retired to Alaska after selling out to a Detroit-based company. (Editor's note: This turned out to be a fabrication, as Jolar, which began with a downtown shop, was actually owned by Harry Mohney, who was second only to Sturman in the number of U.S. porn enterprises he operated.)

When you subtract all the adult bookstores that are affiliated with larger organizations, the City of San Diego today counts eight “independents” — people who own only one or two adult bookstores — in contrast with the fifty or so who fit that description just fifteen years ago, most of which have vanished because of downtown redevelopment in combination with the implementation of the 1979 city ordinance. About those independents who remain, it is difficult to generalize.

They vary dramatically in personality and in how they chanced to enter the business. Rick Ford, for example, worked for thirteen years as a waiter before becoming a pornography merchant.

In 1977 he was working at the Prince of Wales Room in the Hotel del Coronado and earning $18,000 to $20,000 per year, enough to furnish his home with fine art, he says, when he heard about a business opportunity in downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter. Ford had long been fascinated by San Diego’s red-light district, where one of the more colorful characters was an ex-convict and one-time San Diego massage parlor kingpin named John Antonello. Tired of battling the city, Antonello wanted to move to Las Vegas, and he agreed to sell Ford the adult movie theater on the west side of Fifth Avenue between F and G streets downtown for a bargain $12,000, with only half required in down payment. Another opportunity for Ford opened up about a year later when the city required adult bookstore owners to install rest rooms, and Ford’s next-door neighbor, the owner of Oz’s aduh bookstore, couldn’t comply. Police agreed that Ford’s theater’s rest room would suffice if the two facilities were combined, and Ford thus acquired the bookstore for a mere $7000, renaming it, like his theater, the Lux.

Today Ford boasts that he has reinvested more than $80,000 of his profits into the facilities, and indeed they look as if a discriminating decorator had lavished attention and money upon them. In the bookstore. Ford has raised the ceilings, broken the room into different elevations, and added touches of brass and neon ornamentation that make the Lux the most stylish adult bookstore in town, sleeker and more restrained than Vasic’s crowded erotic emporiums. The doors to Ford’s private office are recessed deep within the premises, and inside are quarters as sumptuous as those of any bank president in town. Walls paneled in dark woods hold spotlighted oil paintings, several television monitors, and two built-in video cassette recorders. Overhead a chandelier glitters, throwing soft light on a well-stocked wet bar in one comer.

Ford himself could pass for a banker; forty-five years old, he dresses conservatively and grooms himself well. He says the reason he has put so much into improving his facilities is simply because he enjoys beautiful surroundings. “I’m that kind of person. I try to do things as tastefully as possible,” he says. The upgrading may have brought him some increase in business from women and couples, but Ford thinks it also has probably turned away other customers. He cites a recent study that indicated that “the people who patronize these stores like the sleazy. Forty-second Street [ in New York City] type thing,” and says he agrees. “I almost think that sex is still in the closet enough so that a guy wants to come in where it’s dirty and ugly because he’s been taught that sex is dirty and ugly.” Ford cites his competitor across the street, Mario Ricardez, whose Dirty Bookstore and Sexy Shop sell much the same merchandise that Ford sells but are located in two tawdry, filthy storefronts harboring peepshows. “He does every bit as much business as I do; no doubt about it.... You see the briefcase guys, the guys in ties going in there.”

Ford talks of having certain professional scruples. Unlike Ricardez, Ford refuses to sell “Coco-Snow,” an imitation cocaine-like powder, sold as incense, which retails at the Sexy Shop for eight dollars for a small bottle. “I can’t morally sell it when that guy is going to turn around and sell it to a sailor on the street for $125.” But competitive pressures have driven Ford to offer other products he personally dislikes, he says, such as the inflatable dolls and the allegedly aphrodisiac “Spanish fly.” Ford says, “It’s such a rip-off. Read what the ingredients are on the label. White pepper. Of course that will make you hot.” Ford reluctantly confirms that the Lux has one of the largest selection of bondage magazines in town, a subspecialty of erotica by which Ford seems saddened. He says he didn’t plan this but he noticed that bondage items sold well. A small- to medium-size store such as his can’t carry everything, and before long he had settled into the sadomasochistic niche.

Ford says there’s no way the Lux could compete across the board with stores like those of Vasic. “He can carry thirty different vibrators. I have room for two.” Besides having less floor space. Ford says he also can’t buy merchandise quite as cheaply as the chains, but he asserts that in this regard the independent adult bookstore owner is not significantly disadvantaged. Indeed, rather than dreaming of opening more stores. Ford has directed his energy toward vertical integration: he recently founded Seabag Productions, a local gay video production company, and In-Hand Distributing to sell gay videos wholesale.

Ford bristled when asked to specify how much his businesses earn him; people fail to understand all the added costs and hassles adult bookstore owners must tolerate in order to make a living, he says. City harassment has been unrelenting. Ford points out, and in the private sector blue-nosed small businessmen — plumbers and printers, for example — sometimes refuse to provide service to the beleaguered porno peddler.

However, another bookstore owner who asked that his name not be used did offer insight into how favorably the adult industry’s profits can compare with mundane, general bookstores. Ordinary (nonsexual) bookstores typically buy their books for between twenty-five and fifty-five percent less than the books’ cover prices. Compare the popular Swedish Erotica magazine series, which is sold by almost every adult bookstore in the county. Individual volumes wholesale for around S3.50 but carry a fifteen-dollar cover price — a markup of more than 400 percent. In practice, every bookstore sells Swedish Eroticas for less than their cover price, with the discounted prices ranging from about five to ten dollars. Even with those discounts, however, the store owners are still making gross profits of between seventy and 200 percent on this item.

Another clue as to just how profitable the pornography business is may have surfaced in an ad in the Wall Street Journal that was published in November of 1984. It described a chain of five San Diego bookstores and a movie house for sale at the asking price of $4.2 million and stated that this business had annual profits of $2.1 million. Among local adult business veterans, everyone assumed that the ad referred to the F Street chain. “Only Vasic matched up with it,” one says. However, Vasic’s corporate attorney, Tom Homann, claims when he read about the ad in Tom Blair’s column in the San Diego Union and asked Vasic about it, the entrepreneur denied outright that it referred to his enterprise. If the ad thus remains somewhat of a mystery, a less equivocal insight into the revenues generated by Vasic’s stores can be gained from one former employee who worked at several of the chain’s outlets. According to him, a single day or evening eight-hour shift at Vasic’s University Avenue store (which is open twenty-four hours a day) would commonly log between $1000 and $1500 in sales — and that figure did not include the peepshow revenues.

With those kinds of sales, it’s not surprising that Vasic’s general manager, Tom Wimbish, would contend that the F Street bookstores don’t rely on peep-shows for their viability. “If we didn’t have them, I am sure we would continue to do well,” Wimbish says. A few owners voice similar confidence, but others sound a different tune. Charlie Morgan, for example, who continues to operate the Little Green Bookstore on Palm Avenue in the South Bay after selling his downtown holdings, puts it bluntly. ‘‘The major part of my profitability, the part that makes it worthwhile for me to be in business, comes from the peepshow business. Without that revenue, the profitability would drop to the point that it’s not worth my time.” If the city ever succeeds at enforcing an ordinance that would put peepshows out of business, Morgan predicts, “I don’t think there’ll be an independent store open a year after... which will leave San Diego’s adult business being controlled by a few people with a lot of money. I think there’s some inherent dangers there.” Morgan’s grim timetable may be an exaggeration, but clearly the trend has gone against the independents in favor of larger operators like Vasic and Stur-man. The city’s zoning ordinance also ironically has favored the corporate pornography merchants over the little guys. “You just about have to be an attorney to open a store anymore. Just about any location is within 1000 feet of a church or residential area,” one owner complains. Someone like Vasic can open new stores “only because he has a hill-time attorney. Other people getting into this don’t have the wherewithal. You’re really discouraged. People won’t lease to you, so you just move on and open a barber shop or a video rental store.”

As the adult bookstores have generally grown more respectable both in the way they look and in the type of materials they carry, competitive pressure on the pom purveyors also has been building in another direction as mainstream businesses have gotten into selling sex. Many men get their Hustler from their local liquor store and their pornographic videos from their local Video Library, enjoying the latter at home with their wives or girlfriends. “I used to say that people who couldn’t succeed in business became smut peddlers,” says Wimbish. “You can't do that anymore. You have to be a good businessman.” Vasic and Sturman are that, beyond question. The question may be whether the remaining smaller competitors are good enough.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Jackslacks releases Billy Bacon tribute EP When Pigs Fly

Bacon passed away in August 2019
Next Article

Barbara Bry was right about motorized scooters

Todd Gloria was not
Comments
1

This excellent 1986 history of local porn shops and peep shows starts off talking about a major get-together held earlier that year with all the big porn moguls, with the author wishing they were a fly on the wall at that meeting -- well, meet that fly! I was running one of the places mentioned in the article and was there when porn mogul Reuben Sturman walked in with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist - 21 years later, I wrote a Reader article about it that also updated the histories of the porn shops and people from the 1986 article, if anyone is interested in following up this piece with a related "sequel" -- https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2007/aug/02/one-weird-gig/?page=1&templates=desktop

Aug. 25, 2018

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Set 'em Up Joe — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close