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Gay retailer Priape turns 35

Former owner looks back at how it all got started

HISTORY. Priape's current Montreal location at 1311 St Catherine East. The store was originally located at Maisonneuve and Amherst.

It’s a must-stop shopping spot in Montreal’s gay village. Located on St Catherine, the city’s main east-west thoroughfare, Priape is where guys can find the latest in underwear, fetishwear, leather, rubber, porn and sex toys.

This year marks the 35th birthday of Priape, and former owner Bernard Rousseau was there at the start. In 1974, his boyfriend Robert Duchaine launched Priape as a sex shop on Maisonneuve and Amherst. “It was very small,” recalls Rousseau, now 59. “He sold sex toys and naughty magazines.” In ’76 Rousseau came on board as an employee. But by ’79, Priape was ready for expansion, and Rousseau became a full partner in the business.

“There was a sex-shop war going on at the time. There were two chains and we were independent. All of us were gay, so we decided to go for the gay market entirely.” Priape got rid of all of its ladies inventory and focused on the wants and needs of gay men.

Rousseau says this was a very exciting time for Priape. The secrets to success were, in fact, pretty simple, he says. “Just listen carefully to your customer. We were the first to sell poppers. The first to carry Levis.”

At that time, Rousseau says, “Many gay people had nowhere to go. They were like, ‘Oh my god, we have a store of our own!’ Many people would come in to meet others. There was a lot of cruising going on. We had an info centre for gays who were visiting from out of town. We were an unofficial tourist centre for gays who wanted to know where everything was.”

Oddly enough, for many years underwear was just a small part of the Priape business. “The first person to make underwear for us was trans, Mimi, in 1979. People really liked it. Then we brought in white T-shirts, because of the clone look from San Francisco. We began to diversify: books, magazines, leather, more toys.”

Not surprisingly, Rousseau says the toughest time for Priape was during the initial wave of the AIDS crisis. By the mid-’80s, the Priape team were also running the Cinema du Village, which screened gay porn. “But then, we started losing people left and right. Employees, clients, it was horrible. I had a close friend from Alberta who moved here and became our manager. He died. We were constantly going to churches for funerals. We lost so many people. Robert [Duchaine] also got AIDS, but lived for many years with it. He died in 2002.”

AIDS has had such a profound effect on Priape and Rousseau that for this reason “we do not sell bareback DVDs at Priape. I just cannot do that. I don’t understand why young people don’t protect themselves.”

The other major shift in business comes from the internet. “Everything seems to be migrating there in terms of sales,” he says. “We lose 50 percent of our DVD sales every year. So now we focus more on fetish wear and leather and rubber. Medical toys too — all kinds of toys. Fetish and fashion are our new focuses.”

One of Rousseau’s only regrets is his purchase of L’Androgyne, the city’s historic gay and lesbian bookshop, in 2000. Soon after buying it, he says it turned into “a fucking nightmare.” Forced into a move from their central location on St Laurent, l’Androgyne found a new home on Amherst in the Village. But times had changed; Rousseau would see queer-themed books selling in the chains for a lower price. “All the big chains had gay sections by this point.”

After losing approximately $250,000 on the venture, Rousseau was forced to pull the plug on l’Androgyne — and many in the community were furious with him for closing what they saw as a crucial institution. “I was very sad about that. I really tried to make it work. I felt that Montreal deserved a gay bookstore. It is one of my big regrets.”

On the bright side, Rousseau says he sees no downturn in gay men’s interest in underwear. And he should know, now that the chain has outlets in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. “Now everybody is into underwear. Every week we’re approached by a new company that is making a new line of underwear.”

Priape’s 35th birthday party will be held at Stereo Nightclub (858 St Catherine East) on Fri, Dec 11. Midnight – 7am. $25 in advance, $30 door. Proceeds go to Fondation d’Aide Directe Sida Montreal and the Quebec Gay Chamber of Commerce.