3 min

Bathhouses beyond sex

Tub owners say business is booming

Credit: Tony Fong

Long-time bathhouse pioneer, activist and co-owner of Spa Excess Peter Bochove chuckles at any suggestion that the bathhouse scene is on the wane. He says November was Spa Excess’ best month ever.

“Let me put it this way,” says Bochove. “Our business plan allowed for 10,000 visits per month and lately we are getting 13,000, which means business is excellent.”

Toronto currently has nine bathhouses where gay men congregate, though one of the bigger players, the former Spa On Maitland, is now closed. Purchased earlier this year by the Chicago-based Steamworks chain, the location is under renovations valued at about $2-million. They’re promising a polished state-of-the-art gay entertainment facility.

Bochove has no worries that when Steamworks opens, likely in February or March, it will cut into the business of Spa Excess. He thinks the trend towards more upscale establishments gives bathhouses in general a better image, and so will grow the size of the bathhouse pie.

“I’ve been to Steamworks in Chicago,” Bochove said. “It is clean, extremely well-managed, safe and they put money back into the community where they exist. And they will behave the same way in this marketplace. And they will enhance the reputation of bathhouses. The more of that we have, the healthier the industry will be.”

By the time Steamworks is done with it, patrons won’t recognize the old Spa On Maitland digs. The club was operated by the company as Level 2 for several months before the renovations started this fall.

“We’ve gutted the entire building to bare concrete and are starting fresh,” says Steamworks CEO Brian Short. “Hopefully we’re going to build something like you guys don’t have already. Hopefully it will have a real good sexual charge to it.”

The renovations, originally projected at $1-million, are now expected to come in at just under $2-million, including a huge, structurally-challenging, second-floor hot-tub. When it is all done they will also have showers, a dry room, sauna and eventually – although not for a while – a full gym and a liquor licence.

Short says Steamworks, which has been around for 30 years, is very committed to investing in Toronto. Short himself has been with the organization since the early 1980s when he was a towel boy at a small operation in Fresno. He says he worked his way up from handing out towels and cleaning rooms to CEO.

“We aren’t a couple of strange investors from Manitoba or whatever the fuck that, you know, threw down some money and said, ‘Okay, we’ve made some money,’ then it all goes off to the banks in Montreal,” he says.

Steamworks, which also has clubs in Chicago, Berkeley and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been eyeing the Toronto market for about 10 years. When the opportunity to purchase the Spa On Maitland presented itself in the wake of the death of former owner Jerry Levy, it jumped.

Short says the industry is a strong one, though it can always use a shot in the arm.

“Has bathhouse culture dropped off or has the bathhouse business failed to stimulate people, spark people’s imagination and to provide a product that is fresh and changing?” he says. “If the movies were still showing The Birds and Psycho, would you still go every week?”

Over at St Marc’s on Yonge St, manager Christian Aucoin says there’s room for the US chain in the city.

“We’re not really afraid,” says Aucoin. “We have worked on it for so many years it has been really stable and no matter what has happened, we have had a lot of success. If we have to change some things about our business, we’ll do it, but the kind of clientele that we are reaching is specific compared to other bathhouses in Toronto. I would say that we are the horniest bathhouse in town and I would say that is why it attracts a lot of people.”

He predicts Steamworks will be more of a hang-out, with sex as merely one of the attractions.

“The Steamworks is more, like, relaxing. And the St Marc’s spa is sexual.”

Short agrees they’re about more than sex.

“We run clubs for hot men to come and hang out and play,” Short says. “There is a whole market of people that don’t go to baths that will find the Steamworks is right up their alley. Hopefully we’ll broaden the market of people that do go to baths. It’s not just about getting laid, it’s about a safe, comfortable place to hang out and if they hook up, they hook up. If not, then it’s still a cool environment.”

There is always room for the bathhouse market to grow, says Bochove.

“I’m sure that as bathhouses open at that scale people who don’t ordinarily go to bathhouses will give them a try,” he said. “Our hope is that we will expand the marketplace and Toronto is a big city. Will we lose some business initially? Yes. But can we afford to? Yes.”

Bochove is critical of bathhouse owners he perceives to be irresponsible in keeping up high standards.

“They don’t even make a basic effort to clean up or to keep out drug-dealing and prostitution,” Bochove says.