Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New "Baron of Prospect Ave." webisode!

The latest webisode of The Baron of Prospect Ave. is up. The tour of Kay's Books continues, with a foray into the "back room" on the second floor. The infamous porn room.

With the death of Al Goldstein (see the post further down) the mastermind behind the infamous Screw magazine, I've been thinking a lot about the "Golden Age of Porn" era of the Seventies and Eighties and the part it played in urban undergrounds. Not porn itself... I'm not drawing an Eros Comic book here!… but how the porn economy played into the book biz. Let me expound.

Kay's Books was renowned for its porn selection. Many who worked there suspect it was how the bookstore made most of its profits. Book lovers around town all joked about it, and still do. This massive, wondrous place with over 1 million books may well have been funded out of one small, unmarked room, squirreled in the back of the second floor. Now this is all long before the intertube, of course, aka the biggest XXX bookstore ever created by man. Back in the olden times I depict in The Baron, horndogs had to work a little harder to get their porn fix, seek it out and purchase it by (ahem) hand. There were lots of newsstands and tobacco shops and drugstores around the city that also stocked porn, usually behind the counter, if it was mainstream girlie mags like Playboy and Oui. If the porn selection was large, or consisted of nastier stuff, these establishments had "a back room."

These back rooms were a common part of the urban landscape. They were everywhere. Commonly, they were behind swinging saloon doors, like I picture (above) in this scene from Punk Rock & Trailer Parks. All the newsstands and paperback stores that I shopped at when I was younger had back rooms. As I was browsing sci-fi paperbacks, I'd watch a steady stream of men zip in and out those doors, trying to blend into the store clientele as quickly as possible before they were ID-ed as pervs . Often there was a separate cash register in the back room where clients could pay for sleaze unobserved. Kay's had a register on the second floor, just outside its back room. 

Kay's had every "mainstream" porn mag that was published. The latest issues took up an entire rack along a wall  and unsold issues from previous months were bagged up and sold in discount packs. A three-pack of tittes! The hardcore stuff, however, was kept in a separate small storeroom and was retrieved and sold only on request. My sources tell me there was a lot of this XXX product sold. There were many regular porn clients, and the clerks who ran the porn section knew them and knew their preferences, so material of interest was set aside for particular steady clients.There was one regular, for example, who "loved girls with big ones!"  It was all about moving stock at Kay's, no matter what the stock. To be known as "a buyer" got you special attention from the staff. 

Additionally, there was a huge archive section of old, pervy, softcore stuff stretching back to the Fifties, particularly paperback sleaze fiction and the old Irving Klaw bondage stuff, a lot of it featuring Betty Page! Fifteen years earlier, selling this material was risky business that attracted the attention of the law, but by 1980 it was considered quaint, naughty retro. This was the wondrous thing about Kay's. They carried all the new releases, but had a staggering about of old stock. This was possible in the era before corporate big boxes. Nothing was ever thrown away. You could find virtually anything there, and it wasn't considered "collectible" in those days. It was simply old stock, all priced to move. It was the last era that was the case. A decade later, the price of this stuff shot up. I'd often buy old sci-fi mags from the Fifties, or detective paperbacks from the Forties, stuff that had been on the shelves for decades. Sometimes you'd pull a book from the top of a shelf and it would fall apart in your hands, the glue having turned to dust. Needless to say, you quickly shoved it back in the shelf before Mrs. Kay saw it!

Cleveland was, believe it or not, the center of the porn industry when the events here in The Baron of Prospect Ave. unfold. Oh sure, all the porn was made in New York City and Hollywood, but the guy who bankrolled it all was a Clevelander, the legendary Reuben Sturman.  Never heard of him? Not a surprise. This is the dude that single-handedly created the porn industry!

Sturman started as a teenage comic book distributor in 1948, selling bundles of comix out of his car to drug stores and newsstands around Cleveland's east side in the Fifties. By the end of the Fifties he owned a successful magazine distribution operation, a sleazy business that always had mob ties. He branched out into dirty mags in the Sixties. He was one of the first to realize there was huge money in hardcore porn. By 1970, he started opening porn shops in big cities all around the US. He invented the peep booth, where pervs could pleasure themselves in peace behind a locked door, without getting nabbed by the vice squad, like they were in regular theaters. The booths reportedly were insanely profitable (no one is sure how profitable) and revolutionized the porn industry. Sturman manufactured the things, with their coin-operated screens, and leased them to porn shops everywhere. The number of XXX films exploded, mainly to stock the peep booths. Later he pioneered the porn videotape boom, correctly predicting it to be a future goldmine.  Here in Clevo,  he had a huge, porn warehouse in midtown, a largely uninhabited swath of the city, surrounded by ghetto. I knew some folks who worked there, and it was a porn ancestor of Amazon. Magazine, books, films, sex toys, you name it, all stacked on shelves and ready to be shipped on demand. 

Sturman was extremely reclusive, unlike Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. Few knew his name. He never gave interviews or allowed his photo to be taken. He was a secret kingpin atop a secret economy worth billions. He became insanely rich, and bought protection. Cleveland's government and police have always been corrupt, so we can assume there were many who were on Sturman's payroll. The powerful Cleveland Mafia never crossed him, and Sturman was never targeted in the car-bomb mob wars, so obviously there was an alliance there, as well. Sturman reportedly paid huge kickbacks to the Gambino crime family in New York City.

So all around Cleveland, there were porn shops. A few were quite garish and did nothing to hide what they were, but most were like Kay's Books; back room porn dealers. The authorities looked the other way, since Mrs. Kay wasn't filling her front window with porn. Out of sight, out of mind, as far as the politicians were concerned. 

There are even rumors that Mrs. Kay and Sturman were an item at one time! Mrs. Kay was a formidable and intimidating battleaxe when I frequented Kay's, but she was reported to be quite a looker when she younger and she and Sturman both hailed from the same Jewish section of the city. But I'll probably never nail down the true story there, if there is one.

Eventually, the Feds nailed Sturman. Not for obscenity, although they tried. He beat every obscenity rap. He fell the same way Capone did. he didn't pay his taxes! Sturman loathed the government for its persecution of him and Sturman was evading taxes on a monumental scale. It's the only known case were the Swiss forked over information on secret accounts to US prosecutors! The Kochs and our other Wall St. masters can stash their ill-gotten gains there without fear, but the porn king was another story. Make of that what you will. His eventual fall was an incredible story, one we covered in depth in the alt-press here in Cleveland. He paid off a jury, tried to buy a judge, had henchmen firebomb porn shops owned by those he felt had betrayed him, escaped from prison and spent six weeks on the lam!  Sturman died in prison in 1997. He claimed he was penniless at the end, but who knows? There are probably millions collecting dust in a Caymen Island account.

I've had a helluva a time finding photo reference for these back rooms. Not surprisingly I suppose. They're all long gone now. There's one Cleveland newsstand left that has a back room, but the dude that runs it can charitably be described as nuts, so I don't think he'd take kindly to me taking reference photos. It was a great newsstand at one time, one I shopped at regularly for zines and offbeat publications back in the Nineties. It was run out of its original location on a main drag because the back room attracted protests from family-values types and headline-seeking politicians. I can't believe it's still open, not just because back rooms are so outmoded, but because newsstands themselves have all gone the way of the dinosaur. In fact, it may well be the last newsstand in the city, where once they were over 100.  But I think I've gathered enough reference online. I drew a peep booth in PR&TP and that was the most difficult of all to find reference for.  There just weren't any photos of these things, for obvious reasons. I'm assuming they're all long gone, too, replaced by the intertube. I finally found one fuzzy photo after weeks of searching that enabled me to draw a booth. Yes, I'm happy to report I never set foot, or any other part, in one so I had no clue what they looked like. 

This is it. The only photo of a vintage peep booth I was able to find.

I plan to work some of this into The Baron of Prospect Ave. But for now, it'll just be limited to a quick glimpse of the back room on the second floor, and to Boner Bill.