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Venus Envy owner says goodbye

Ottawa-based sex shop celebrates fifteen years, new management

Shelley Taylor, left, has been the owner of Ottawa’s Venus Envy for 15 years. Ownership will be taken over by Sam Whittle.  Credit: Agnes Noblet

“Our start in Ottawa was so bad,” says Venus Envy owner Shelley Taylor. It’s a particularly good time for her to reflect — following the education-oriented sex and book shop’s 15th anniversary celebration, the store will be getting a new owner.

“There are lots of reasons [why I’m selling],” she says. Among them is her plan to pursue a new career. “It’s been a creative, satisfying time, but I recognized that if I was going to have another career I’d have to do that sooner rather than later . . . I think it’s tough for older people to get started in new careers.”

Taylor’s been involved with sex education for many years through her work with her store — which offers various resources and workshops — but now wants to teach independently. She’s in the process of completing her sexual health education certification through Options for Sexual Health in Vancouver.

When the store had its lacklustre Ottawa debut in 2001 in the ByWard Market, she was still the owner of the Halifax location as well. “There were a few days a month when nobody would come in. For the first couple of years the Halifax store paid the Ottawa store’s rent, and at one point we had to lay off all the staff,” she says.

The store eventually moved to Lisgar Street and then to its current location at 226 Bank St in 2014. The first year on Bank was difficult — Taylor thinks many customers assumed the store had simply closed — but by 2015, the more prominent location began to pay off. “[It] has really made a big difference in terms of foot traffic and the invitations we get for speaking engagements,” she says.

She has even more reason to look back on 2015 fondly. What could have been a disaster — fines for selling an underage person a chest binder — turned into a positive. It began a process whereby the store was able to rid itself of its status as an adult store, a status that was preventing many younger people from accessing valuable resources. This includes books for kids, books on coming out and books relating to trans issues.

This incident also inspired the creation of Venus Envy’s Pay it Forward program in October 2015. The store takes donations and uses the funds to provide gaffs (devices trans women can use to flatten the genitalia) and chest binders free-of-charge to those who want them.

Taylor is also proud that the Venus Envy Bursary Fund had its best year ever in 2015 — it gave out four $1,500 bursaries. “It’s a record,” she says. “We’d usually donate that much in two years.”

The successes of last year lined up well with Taylor’s desire for a change. “The last while has been extremely positive, and I wanted to sell when the business was in really good shape,” she says. “Not only is business good, but community integration is at its best ever . . . it feels like a really good place to move on and let other folks take over.”   

The new owner, Sam Whittle, worked for the store in the past for several years and recently completed a master’s degree in social work. When she heard that Taylor was interested in selling, she fired off an email asking about buying the store. “It was like everything fell into place,” Taylor says. “Both because of her experience here and because of her experience before and after [working at] Venus Envy.”

It’s too early for Whittle, who moved back home to Ottawa from Toronto in order to take over the store, to give concrete details of her plans for the business, but she’s optimistic. “I can say I’m really excited to build even more on the educational and support side of what we do,” she says. “Shelley’s been amazing and done so much of that, so there’s a strong foundation and I want to build on that.”

Taylor will stay on for as long as she’s needed to help with the transition. She will also assume the role of chair of the Venus Envy Bursary Fund indefinitely, helping with fundraisers and recipient selection. Whittle officially takes over the store on Monday, Feb 1, just a couple of days after the anniversary party.

Called The Big One: 15 Years in Ottawa with Venus Envy, the celebration includes dancing to music by DJs Magnificent, Sarita and Aga, and MC Straightedge and Marshia Celina. There’s bookblacking with Beth from Ottawa Leather Works. And, perhaps most intriguingly, artist Allan André will paint a sexy, large-scale picture while the party rages around him.