In the burgeoning Warehouse District, on the corner of Washington and Second Avenues, Sex World beckons with a neon come-on. This is the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Twin Cities, a rite of passage celebrated on countless 18th birthdays.
Welcome to the most famous adult store in Minnesota. Here you can ride the gyrating golden phallus, buy all manner of porn and pleasure toys, and even have an intimate experience with a beautiful stranger behind glass.
The libidinous men who dreamed up Sex World more than 30 years ago were Dennis Buchanan Sr. and Robert Bonynge, related by marriage. Their friendship evolved into a business partnership when they opened Broadway Book and Video on Hennepin Avenue.
Some interviews have been condensed and edited.
Dennis Buchanan Jr., current Sex World owner: Bob and my dad were best friends. Bob was married to my mom's cousin and he was the pervert who hung out in adult movie and bookstores. My dad was an electrical engineer. One day, Bob asked my dad if he could make video booths. That's how the partnership started.
Colleen Bertino, owner of Fantasy Gifts: I consider Broadway the grandfather of Sex World. We opened Fantasy House in 1980 when my dad saw the dildo and vibrator manufacturers on the Phil Donahue show. Back then, female sex toys had just entered the market, and by the end of that show my dad had ordered each toy featured.
Dennis Jr.: Back in the '80s, this business was a men's business — male masturbation toys and everything that revolved around undesirable men's habits. Don't get me wrong; undesirable men have made Sex World a lot of money, so I have nothing against them. The sex industry was a lot different when my dad first went into the business.
BUCHANAN SR. AND BONYNGE — partners and friends — were very different men. Dennis Sr. was an engineer and visionary with the personality for business. Bob was the deviant inventory specialist and merchandise buyer.
Dennis Jr.: I loved them both for the things they taught me. Bob liked his porn and he was a drunk. He got into trouble videotaping his Rottweiler with women. I still remember the [newspapers] got a picture of me at 16 years old. I was stocking shelves and over my picture in the newspaper was "Bestiality." After Bob was convicted, he served nine months in the workhouse.
At around this time, Buchanan Sr.'s embryonic version of his famous Dollhouse began to take shape on the second floor of the Golden Spike, another business Buchanan and Bonynge owned together under the parent company of Broadway Visuals.
Dennis Jr.: My dad tried his first dance house with booths and live girls in the '80s. It was called the StarDust. The fire department closed it down and then we didn't have live girls until the Dollhouse.
Across the river, Peter Hafiz — another huge player in the Twin Cities sex industry — was having his own problems with his Faust Theater. The Faust was a one-stop shop for books, dancers, porn videos, and peep show booths — very much the same business model as Sex World today.
George Latimer, former St. Paul mayor: When I first took office, I took the perspective of a civil libertarian when it came to the notorious Faust — meaning there was no evidence people were being dragged there against their will. City Council Member Bill Wilson was sensitive to the impact the Faust had on the Frogtown community and neighborhoods. That's when we worked to get a third party to buy out the owners.
Bertino: We opened a Fantasy Gifts in St. Paul right around the time the Faust closed. Hafiz got an insane amount of money to close and move to Minneapolis. The early '90s is when legislation changed to where women could dance totally naked in Minneapolis as long as the only thing that was served was just juice.
Latimer: The Faust closing cleaned up the creeps around the University-Dale neighborhood. And now the Rhondo library stands in its place.
Part of the buyout deal included a clause that Hafiz couldn't start another sex business in St. Paul.
Latimer: It was a weird kind of precedent, because someone else could start an adult place in St. Paul, just not the former Faust owner.
Bonynge was released from prison in 1990. By then he'd lost the fortune he'd accumulated from Broadway Book and Video. Dennis Sr. let Bonynge move in with him to get back on his feet.
Dennis Jr.: Life was very different growing up in our family business. I was stocking shelves at 12. When Bob got out of prison, he lived with us for a while. That's when the differences [between Buchanan Sr. and Bonynge] really started showing up. Bob liked his booze. My dad liked his weed. And it grew from there.[page]
Jerry Buchanan, brother of Dennis Sr. and current owner of Lickety Split: Bob and Dennis's falling out wasn't the type that could be reconciled. Bob went on to buy Lickety Split and Dennis started Sex World. They were arch enemies and competitors from that moment on.
Dennis Jr.: Bob and my dad had a huge fight. It was over money. They never spoke after about 1991. My uncle and I ended up being the peacemakers to keep the business going.
Dennis Sr. brought in his brother (Dennis Jr.'s uncle) Jerry Buchanan to consult. Once Déjà Vu settled into the North Loop, Jerry's instinct was that this was the right neighborhood for the family's next sex shop.
Jerry Buchanan: I bought and own Sex World and the building next to it. Both had been abandoned for more than 20 years. Buck [Dennis Jr.] leases it from me now. He's been a good tenant. We're proud of the way he's taken over the business.
Dennis Jr.: I was never a straight and narrow kid, so this business fit me. I learned the business acumen from my uncle [Jerry Buchanan] and since I've been 20 years old have done 90 percent of the buying.
Jerry: The building was built in 1869. I have a picture of President Arthur in front of it celebrating the Northern Pacific Railroad. When we first bought on Second and Washington, the neighborhood was one of the scariest in town. Nobody wanted to touch the building or walk on the street at that time.
Dennis Jr.: My dad had the idea for Sex World from a store he'd seen in New York called something like "Sexy World." Our name and our location is one of the reason's we've become the biggest and most well known sex store in the Midwest.
Jerry: Buck [Dennis Jr.] has grown from a typical kid and into a good student of the business.
Dennis Jr.: We opened Thanksgiving Day in 1993. We were up 24 hours getting everything ready and when we opened the doors that morning, nobody showed up.
Bertino: Sex World opened and set the bar as the edgy and hardcore sex shop from the beginning. I remember the first Sex World window display with amazing custom-made leather bondage outfits. As I like to say in our business, if there's no controversy in what we are doing, there'd be a dildo aisle at Walmart.
Dennis Jr.: Dad opened Sex World and a few years later Bob opened Lickety Split.
Jerry: Like it or not, Sex World is the cornerstone to changing the neighborhood. We lit up the place with our 24-hour business and kept it safer for foot traffic. We've brought it from not one person wanting to walk by to a place that 150 to 200 people walk by a day.
Dennis Jr.: Our original hours were from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. About a year after we opened, we'd have a lineup of people at the doors. That's when we moved to 24 hours 365 days a year, and we haven't closed our doors since.
Mark Mallman, local musician: Sex World is a big part of the neighborhood when you live here. The place is a social anomaly. It's got dark social overtones of misguided and unhealthy pornography, but mostly I see regular, normal, healthy people going into the store laughing and coming out laughing.
Josh Anderson, Sex World's most tenured employee: We have three types of regulars: Dollhouse regulars, convenience store regulars, and DVD rental and buyer regulars.
Mallman: I see the regulars going into the Dollhouse when I'm getting a soda from the vending machine. I'm one of the regulars that honestly uses Sex World as a convenience store.
Jim Mueller, Sex World general manager: We have to be careful with our staffing — not many females on the night shift. We are the place all the drunks come after the bar. It never fails: At 2 a.m., somebody always gets hit in the head with "The Big One."
Dennis Jr.: The Big One is the huge, mechanical, golden, bucking penis my dad engineered. He wanted to give the females at Sex World a fun ride.
SEX WORLD IS ONE of the only places in the Twin Cities with live girls in private booths behind glass. There are about nine Dollhouse women on staff. The peep shows last 10 minutes and can range from an innocent dance to role-playing a bondage fetish fantasy.
Candy, Dollhouse Peep Show: I've been a sex worker in other places. Sex World's management is one of the better places I've worked. They've never called me a slut or bitch like my jobs in the sex industry.
Dennis Jr.: The upper Midwest has a big market for live girls, and the Dollhouse is one of the main attractions. We've stayed in business through the internet and digital video porn transformation. The Dollhouse is one of the things that keeps us on top.[page]
Mueller: There's nothing like Sex World in the Midwest for sure and possibly the country. There's no store you can talk to live girls, spice up your sex life with lingerie or a new vibrator, and even buy convenience store items like soda, cigarettes, and batteries for your remote controls.
Spring, Dollhouse Peep Show: You wouldn't believe how many guys come in here in a business suit. And underneath the suit is a lacy teddy.
Mike "Flick" Flueckiger, current Dollhouse manager: Our busiest time of day for the Dollhouse is the lunch hour.
Remy, Dollhouse Peep Show: People have a lot of misconceptions about who's the woman behind the glass. That we're on drugs or sexual deviants. It's not true. I'm going to school now and have dreams beyond the peep show.
Candy: Being a sex worker is a highly stigmatized job. The best thing about my job is I make way more than minimum wage and I can pay my bills. I have people in my life who are respectful and supportive of the work I do. But still, you can put in years of hard work and you won't get a promotion, and you age out.
Spring: My boyfriend and I came to see a peep show before I took the job. He's okay with it because he knows I come home to him. I haven't told my mom and dad what I'm doing for work.
Candy: The difference between the strip show and the peep show is fetish. The peep show is fetish work, which involves a lot more emotional and intellectual work. That's actually what I like about the peep show is the role-play and the acting.
Spring: I'm surprised by how many guys have feet fetishes.
Remy: I have my regulars who come in here with certain fetishes. One of my favorites is the guy who likes to make me the dominant. He comes in here and calls me "Mistress" and ties up his balls.
Mueller: We have five women a day come in and apply for the Dollhouse.
Flueckiger: It's a high turnover job, but we are never short of applicants in the Dollhouse.
Former City Pages columnist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody worked in the Dollhouse in 2004. She recorded her experiences in her memoir, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, writing, "At the Dollhouse, I compiled a veritable field guide of peep show oddities. Customers who defied categorization."
Dennis Jr.: I didn't know she worked here until she was gone. She wasn't famous and didn't make herself known to me.
Mueller: From what I heard, she didn't like the Dollhouse manager. And I think the feeling was mutual.
Candy: What I'd like to say about Cody's memoir is that even the title of her book bugs me. "A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper." Why is she an unlikely stripper? She used the money she made from peep show work just like I do: to pay her bills. She's exactly like every other stripper.
The third floor of Sex World featured visiting porn stars on a regular basis leading up to 2006. But the elevator doors closed once and for all in 2008, marking the end of an era.
Dennis Jr.: We've filled the third floor with some bizarre things over the years. We had things like a sex art gallery where women would paint their boobs and stick them on glass. There was a tattoo shop up there and we sold orders for penis and boob cakes. People loved riding the elevator up to third floor. We had some inventory up there, but it became a revenue drain to staff the area and it wasn't making money.
Mueller: We still have four to five people a day come in and ask to go to the third floor and it's been closed for seven years. It was a big part of Sex World for the customer experience.
Dennis Jr.: With digital video and the internet, we had to make some changes to stay profitable. We've had a lot of transformation from behind the scenes; we closed the warehouse without as much inventory with the decline of DVDs.
Anderson: Our regular DVD rentals and purchasing is done by men in their 50s who like their routine and don't want to learn new technology to get internet porn. The younger customer isn't coming in here for DVD porn.
Mueller: We've expanded our sex clothing and costume selection. We even have a big selection of female shoes. We'll always be the place you can come to touch and feel your sex toy and get what you want right away.[page]
Dennis Jr.: The new revenue streams, like expanding our female lingerie and smokehouse, have continued to make us profitable and kept it fun.
Bertino: It's been fascinating to watch women in the last three decades. Women have become more comfortable with having fun in a consensual relationship. Twenty years ago, women would come in and embarrassingly put their product next to the checkout register. Now they come in and ask questions about the differences between the $20 and the $250 vibrator.
Dennis Jr. and Jerry kept the relationship with Bonynge amicable and Jerry was able to buy Lickety Split before Bonygne's death in 2007.
Jerry: Our gay clientele is one of our biggest. We gear toward sexy not sleazy and we're couple-friendly.
Olivia Munsell, Lickety Split shift manager: We differentiate ourselves from Sex World in that we have the largest selection of clothing for strippers. If you're a dancer, you're going to buy merchandise in here.
Another significant milestone was the filming of Into Temptation in 2009. The script won the McKnight Screenwriting Fellowship from the IFP Minnesota Center for Media Arts and several supporting roles were filled with local actors.
Mueller: I don't think we've ever had a priest in here that I know of. Except we did film Into Temptation, which was about a priest saving a stripper.
Patrick Coyle, director of Into Temptation: Being in Sex World at 6 a.m. with a film crew and an actor dressed like a priest was crazy memorable. Sex World had to turn away tons of customers while shooting in the morning, mostly older men.
Mueller: We've never closed our doors, but filming the movie was one of the only times we did. They blocked the streets off that day.
Coyle: I was going to use one of Sex World's peep show women for a scene where a priest enters the booth and attempts to communicate with the dancer through glass. She was nice but I wasn't 100 percent convinced she hadn't imbibed before her scene so I called my casting agent. They sent me Dawn Brodey. The rest is history — it's one of the best scenes in the film.
Dawn Brodey, local actress: I'd never stripped before and I was a huge fan of Jeremy Sisto, star of Six Feet Under, and he's the one dressed as a priest on the other side of the glass. I was half-naked and I tried to talk to him, but he couldn't hear me. He didn't pick up the phone in the booth to talk to me.
Coyle: Spending 13 hours in Sex World, we ended up with one of the best scenes in the movie. My wife won't let me go back, but I remember how quickly you can become desensitized to displays of dildos, all shapes and sizes.
Brodey: I'll never forget I was in the locker room area of the of the Dollhouse leaning with my hands up against the wall and I had my legs spread and a production assistant was rubbing Vaseline on my thighs. I look up and there's the "Know Your Rights" legislation at my eye level. It was an ironic moment as I was wearing a nipple pasty and a thong.
DENNIS SR. HADN'T been involved in the day-to-day business since his son took over operations 15 years ago. But when the patriarch died of esophageal cancer in 2011, Sex World quietly mourned.
Mueller: It's really hard for him [Dennis Jr.] to talk about his dad still to this day.
Dennis Jr.: My dad was into the legalizing pot movement. He packed up his stuff and drove himself down to Colorado. A few months after he got down there he found out he had esophagus cancer. He had eight weeks to live.
Jerry: I spent a lot of time on ladders with Denny [Dennis Sr.] in Sex World, and you'll see everyone from the poorest to the blue-collar worker to the elite like a judge. What Denny did with Sex World was eliminate classism.
Anderson: One of the most bizarre customers I had was a guy came in with a windbreaker and tight short shorts. He'd go into the bathroom and take off his shorts and come back out to shop. I got good at spotting him, but he'd then try to whip the shorts off in front of me.
Dennis Jr.: Sex World is my life, it's not something I feel is work — I love it, and everything in here, even the mechanical Sex World globe, is a creation of my dad.
Mueller: Sadly, I didn't have a chance to spend a lot of time with Denny Sr. I feel like I keep his legacy going when I switch out "The Big One" and get the phallus in a trailer to drive it to Wisconsin and get it detailed out and repainted gold.[page]
Dennis Jr.: We won't be changing any of the mechanical things my dad engineered. It keeps his memory alive. We'll stay ahead of the curve in possibly streaming internet porn into the booths when DVDs are no longer available. But we won't change the historical Sex World marks of my dad.
Anderson: I see a lot of horrible things here — loneliness, sadness — and while I continue to be surprised, there is an element of predictability, too. What we sell here is pleasure. We sell pleasure in many forms.