Porn wars 

A sex-shop invasion creates Atlanta's new red-light district

These are exhilarating times to be in the pornography business, if John Cornetta's mood is any indication.

The Love Shack sex-shop mogul has opened 10 stores in two years across metro Atlanta -- a wildfire expansion by any measure. He's fending off at least a half-dozen lawsuits and injunctions in state and federal court. And he's locked in a risky game of trash-talking brinkmanship with three large metro counties, all of which would like to shut him down, if only to shut him up.

To say Cornetta is brimming with a self-confident energy these days is like noting that Ron Jeremy has an active libido.

"I personally believe there should be a business like mine on every corner," he says, only partly kidding.

One place where this scenario has become a near-reality is Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

From I-20 south to Campbellton Road, the Fulton Industrial corridor is lined with cavernous warehouses, distribution hubs and manufacturing facilities owned by such corporate behemoths as Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's and Warner-Electra-Atlantic records.

Dozens of Georgia businesses are represented as well, including Coca-Cola, with a sprawling bottling plant, Bronner Brothers hair products and the Great American Cookie Co.

With more than 1,000 companies and 30,000 employees along an eight-mile stretch, Fulton Industrial arguably is the richest piece of roadway in the county's tax rolls.

And yet, the half-mile strip of pavement at its northern end -- straddled by I-20, just outside the western Perimeter -- has long been home to a woebegone collection of truck stops, fast-food joints, seedy motels and second-rate strip clubs.

Clustered within the same hell's half-acre of oil-stained asphalt are a trio of clubs with such names as Fannie's, Riley's Showbar and Babes -- whose aging sign features the come-on "Totally Nude" for those somehow unfamiliar with Atlanta's reputation for bottomless entertainment. A sticker on Babes' front door resembling the Intel slogan, but with one not-too-clever alteration, reads: "Booty inside."

A well-known haven for prostitution, petty crime and plain-old loitering, the northern end of Fulton Industrial is so inhospitable to mainstream businesses that its lone sit-down restaurant, a Shoney's, is now empty and abandoned.

A few enterprising businesspeople, however, apparently decided the area had retail potential. Last year brought a large influx of investment -- but it likely wasn't the kind most local boosters were seeking.

In the space of a few months, Inserection owner Michael Morrison opened one of his trademark "adult fantasy stores," as well as New York Video -- a more hardcore, video-heavy store -- across the road from each other. Two private swingers clubs, Trapeze and 2 Risque; an S&M nightclub, Club Kink; and Club Wax, a large strip club, set up shop a stone's throw apart on a side street overlooking Fulton Industrial. Finally, the Love Shack opened across from the entrance to the county-owned Charlie Brown Airport.

In roughly a year's time, the gateway to Fulton County's most prosperous industrial district had been transformed from a run-down retail pocket into metro Atlanta's new red-light district -- all within sight of the Six Flags roller coasters.

But this transition hasn't happened smoothly. After what seemed like a long period of dormancy, Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties have joined Gwinnett in getting hot under the collar about sex shops.

Fulton has been attempting to do away with all three Love Shack locations within its borders and has cited a fourth adult video store with violating the county permit code.

Both Cobb and Marietta officials have invoked the state's creaky obscenity law in going after stores in their jurisdictions. The city has even succeeded in securing a judge's order to padlock an Inserection across the road from the Big Chicken.

DeKalb County is trying to shut down two new Memorial Drive stores, as well as shops on south Moreland Avenue and Buford Highway, but may have undercut its efforts with recent, loophole-closing amendments to what Cornetta has called "the stupidest adult ordinance in America."

Only Gwinnett seems to be taking a breather from losing its initial fight to keep the Love Shack chain from gaining a foothold there.

The legal battles in which Cornetta, Morrison and several of their competitors are currently engaged may very well decide the future of smut-peddling in metro Atlanta. If the counties prevail, some of the stores will disappear and it will be difficult for any new locations open. If the counties lose and their adult-business ordinances are stricken down -- as has happened before to both Gwinnett and Fulton -- then Cornetta believes the floodgates will be open and he'll have his pick of store sites.

It's safe to say the porn-shop business is most exhilarating right now to those who, like Cornetta, thrive on conflict and confrontation. It was the early '80s. Ronald Reagan was talking tough to the Evil Empire. Michael Jackson's Thriller was burning up the album charts. Flashdance was packing movie theaters. Excited Americans were tuning in to watch the space shuttle take off.

And, in Atlanta, all-out war was raging between City Hall and the last few remaining "yellow-front" bookstores selling men's magazines, stag films and adult novelties. Years of obscenity busts, subpoenas, fines and protests had taken their toll. In 1986, the city's last smut shop, coyly named Books & Gifts, shut its doors for good.

It would be nearly a decade before another local entrepreneur would again openly attempt to sell vibrators or rent porn videos in Atlanta.

All of which may seem odd when one considers that, only a few years earlier, downtown and Midtown had been awash in pornography and adult businesses. The neighborhoods along Peachtree and 14th streets were home to a crowded roster of dirty bookshops, XXX-rated cinemas and such national retail chains as The Pleasure Chest, which catered to an odd blend of sexually liberated flower children, S&M enthusiasts and the raincoat brigade.

Also odd was the impression that, while a succession of Atlanta prosecutors had been busy doing battle with the city's smut shops since the mid-'70s, local officials seemed to take little interest in the rash of strip clubs that were sprouting up around town along such busy corridors as Piedmont Road, Cheshire Bridge and Stewart Avenue.

Or perhaps this apparent political inconsistency wasn't so odd after all, when one considers the strange story of Mike Thevis.

In the early '70s, Thevis, a small-time Atlanta newsstand owner of Greek descent, had risen to become a pornography kingpin, with a string of adult bookstores across the country. Even more profitable, however, was his brainchild, the peep-show house, where men armed with a box of tissues and a pocketful of quarters could settle into a dark booth to watch prurient film loops. At his height, Thevis was estimated to control 40 percent of the American porn market from his Atlanta headquarters.

He was not, however, a "smut-peddler who cares," as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt promotes himself. Instead, according to a lengthy FBI investigation, Thevis used Mafia-style tactics to build his business: threatening competitors, torching their stores, even shooting a rival and cramming his body in the trunk of a Cadillac.

While facing federal racketeering charges in 1978, he escaped from jail, returned to Atlanta and used a shotgun to murder a former employee-turned-government witness (as well as an innocent bystander) just days before the stoolie was scheduled to testify against him. Soon recaptured, Thevis is now a permanent resident of an underground maximum-security prison in Minnesota for mad-dog criminals.

So it perhaps is no surprise at all that, by the mid-'70s, Atlanta officials had come to associate adult bookstores with gangsterism and organized crime, and were under a great deal of local pressure to shut down such businesses.

Which, in turn, proved to be a boon for local exotic-dancing clubs, such as the Clermont Lounge, Tattletales and the now-departed Domino Lounge and Sans Souci. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision declaring that public nudity was not, in itself, obscene, Atlanta strip clubs quietly did away with tassels and G-strings.

With its attention fixed on closing adult bookstores, the City Council did little to curb the burgeoning nudie-bar scene. To the contrary, many local officials welcomed the growth of the convention industry as Atlanta gained a unique status: the only major American city where strip-club patrons can enjoy the Full Monty and a full bar.

While the strip-club industry has enjoyed a mostly hands-off relationship with Atlanta, it has often met with strong resistance when trying to make inroads into the suburbs.

Until the last decade or so, there were only a handful of clubs located outside the city limits, all in neglected commercial areas: Flashers in Sandy Springs, Boomer's in a shopping center off Cobb Parkway, the abject Cyprus Lounge on a rundown stretch of Canton Road in Marietta. And, of course, there were the three clubs on Fulton Industrial, dating back to a time long before anyone imagined the road as a candidate for civic renewal.

So, how's this for irony: Now that business leaders want to give the industrial zone an image makeover, a sudden spurt of retail growth has given it the highest concentration of adult businesses of any place in metro Atlanta.

Patrick Stafford, who was hired in 1999 as the first executive director of the then-decade-old Fulton Industrial Business Association, says the group's top priority has been to attract mainstream retail and restaurants to the area.

But the organization has been almost completely unsuccessful in this aim, and Stafford believes the influx of the sex shops is largely to blame.

"I've been told people have quit their jobs because their wives or families have to drive by these businesses," he says.

Doug Kuniansky, vice president of MK Management, one of the primary developers of Fulton Industrial more than 20 years ago and still one of its biggest landlords, is disgusted with the recent resurgence of smut.

"To me, because I'm a warehouse owner, it's like a growing cancer, the worst kind of blight," he says.

The county opened a police precinct at Charlie Brown Airport and last winter raided one of the sleaziest of the hotels, shutting it down for multiple building code violations. But Kuniansky believes that while Fulton commissioners are happy to let the tax money roll in from Fulton Industrial, they aren't serious about cleaning up the area.

In particular, he blames Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards, in whose Southside districts the road falls.

"They don't give a damn about the businesses here, only their constituents who live in the neighborhoods off the road," Kuniansky complains. "They think so little of the area that they've allowed these types of businesses to come in."

Edwards, however, says he made it a priority when he took office in 2000 to crack down on some of the law-breakin' going on along Fulton Industrial. He joined the county fire marshal in raiding a couple of the shabbier hotels, even though they were actually in Darnell's mid-county district.

In a statement released to CL, Darnell opines: "I certainly hope that we will not see the continuing proliferation of adult bookstores in the Fulton Industrial Boulevard corridor." Yet, she doesn't suggest any action the county could take in curbing that proliferation.

Although Edwards says he, too, has no fondness for swingers clubs or dirty video stores -- "Adult businesses are a plague that eat away at the core of our community," he says -- he acknowledges that they fall under the heading of what the U.S. Supreme Court, invoking the First Amendment, calls "protected speech."

"The law allows certain things, so we have to find ways to permit them," he explains, tellingly. "As big a county as we are, it could be worse."

What Edwards could be describing, although you'll never hear him or any other elected official admit it, is the political concept of containment. It goes something like this: Since you can't do away with such unwanted features of the modern landscape as landfills, sewage treatment plants and, yes, sex-toy shops, you make sure they're located where they will have the least adverse impact to surrounding neighborhoods -- and to your political career.

By that standard, it's a no-brainer that this section of Fulton Industrial would be a dumping ground for adult businesses. After all, there are no nearby subdivisions, churches, schools, hospitals, old-folks' homes or Bible camps that would typically supply the opponents to any intrusion by, say, an adult bookstore.

And so it's been possible for businessmen such as Florida sex-club veteran Alan Mastow to take advantage of the low rent and lack of neighborhood scrutiny here to open Trapeze and Klub Kink with little or no public outcry.

Citing an all-but unverifiable statistic, Mastow says he was drawn to the Atlanta market because "it has the largest number of adult clubs per capita in the country."

Since neither club sought a liquor license, Mastow was able to avoid the type of furor over permits that many strip clubs face. Trapeze, which is thronged with swingers on weekend nights, calls little attention to itself, building its membership by word-of-mouth and tightly targeted advertising, rather than catchy radio jingles or swirling searchlights.

"I'm here for the next 20 years," Mastow says, by way of explaining that he aims to be a good corporate citizen.

Certainly, as an entrepreneur, he did his homework. Although Fulton Industrial would seem an out-of-the way location for an ordinary nightclub, easy access from two nearby interstates and a side-street setting make it ideal for destination-oriented, special-interest clubs like his.

The only people likely to be in the area after sundown are long-haul truckers, third-shift factory workers, travelers on the lookout for cheap lodging -- and patrons of the many adult businesses in the area. Which begs the question: If Fulton Industrial isn't an appropriate site for adult businesses, what is?

Michael Morrison is well-acquainted with trouble. His first obscenity arrest came shortly before his graduation from Oglethorpe University in 1995. The previous January, the California transplant opened his first "adult toy store," 9 1/2 Weeks, on West Peachtree Street in Midtown near a site the city had earmarked for a children's museum.

The resulting torrent of community complaints and angry letters spurred then-Mayor Bill Campbell to make a public display of cracking down on the sex shop, accompanying police in a photo-op raid in which they confiscated blow-ups dolls, dildos and day-glow condoms.

Morrison recalls that each time he would open a new store in Atlanta, police would make a show of busting it. Then he would give interviews vowing not to knuckle under to someone else's version of morality.

"You don't start in this business planning to be a crusader for First Amendment rights," he says. But Morrison, now 34 and a second-generation sex-toy retailer, found that, to stay in business, he had to take on that role.

After each raid, he would restock the shelves with the same mix of merchandise that has proven to be his formula for success: lubricants, vibrators, a smattering of bondage gear, magazines and, of course, hundreds of porno tapes. In an about-face from the image of the grungy, dark porn parlor, Morrison made sure all his stores were clean, airy, well-lit and, in a nod to inclusiveness, gay- and female-friendly.

"The gay community has been very good to us," he says appreciatively.

In 1997, a jury announced that it regretted having no choice other than to find Morrison guilty of selling obscene merchandise; the jurors released a statement condemning as "archaic" the 1968 state law that makes it illegal to sell any device whose primary purpose is to stimulate the genitals.

He was forced to change the name of his growing chain of stores to Inserection after a lawsuit by the producers of the film 9 1/2 Weeks. And he began to sell smoking paraphernalia to compete with Starship when that venerable local chain of novelty stores started carrying more adult videos.

But, in the past few years, Morrison seemed be enjoying a live-and-let-live relationship with most local governments -- that is, until Cornetta came along.The quintessential loud, brash New Yorker, John Cornetta had moved to DeKalb a few years earlier to operate a lingerie business that stages "fashion shows" at sports bars. He was best known as the publisher of Xcitement magazine, an advertising vehicle for local strip clubs, when he decided to get into the adult-store business.

Looking to Gwinnett as a virtually untapped market, Cornetta bought a small shop on Jimmy Carter Boulevard in 2000, turned it into his first Love Shack and did well selling much the same blend of sex toys and videos as Inserection.

A year later, when he applied for a permit to open Love Shack II near Peachtree Corners, the county denied his request and, five days later, raided his original store and threw him in jail.

"When I was first arrested for obscenity, I was a little scared, but I'll never be scared again," he says.

Instead, Cornetta took the county to court -- and won. The same day a judge threw out Gwinnett's adult business ordinance as being unconstitutionally restrictive, Cornetta filed applications for store locations across the county.

Despite -- or perhaps, because of -- months of protests and picketing by local residents, his Love Shack II has proven to be his most profitable store by far.

Emboldened by his victory, Cornetta decided to expand into Fulton. Trouble was, in the wake of Inserection, commissioners had tightened up the adult business ordinance to a point where, according to First Amendment attorney Alan Begner, it is practically impossible to open a new adult business anywhere in the county.

Begner, who represents Love Shack, Inserection and Starship -- as well as most of the strip clubs, lingerie-modeling studios and sensual massage businesses in metro Atlanta -- points out that the current Fulton ordinance defines an adult bookstore as a shop in which at least 50 percent of the stock is composed of "adult media," such as magazines and videos.

To get around that roadblock, Cornetta retooled his store selection to feature a majority of non-media products -- buttplugs, hookahs, edible undies -- and opened his Love Shack on Fulton Industrial under a general business license, instead of applying for the special-use permit required of an adult bookstore. He followed with locations in Sandy Springs and on Old National Highway. Cornetta has fought back by attacking the Fulton ordinance on constitutional grounds in federal court, where he's represented by prominent Cincinnati attorney H. Louis Sirkin, who last year persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to toss out the notorious federal law banning "virtual child pornography."

Suffice it to say, Cornetta is downright cocky about his legal chances: "I think I could open up a store across the street from the Fulton County government building and beat the zoning law."

On Oct. 15, Cornetta reached a settlement with county officials that won't make the Fulton Industrial business community any happier. In exchange for closing his Old National Highway location and vowing to wait at least two years before attempting to open any more stores in the county, Cornetta will see all existing citations and legal actions against him withdrawn. In other words, the Fulton Industrial store is there to stay.

"One of the reasons I believe the county settled is the strong possibility that its special-use permit and zoning laws are unconstitutional," Begner observes.

In DeKalb, however, Cornetta remains locked in a contentious legal feud over his two newest stores, including one on Memorial Drive whose business license application claimed it was to be called "St. Patty's Gifts." County officials complained they were blindsided when the shop opened as another Love Shack.

Cornetta says he didn't tell the county he was opening an adult entertainment business because it isn't one, according to the county's own definition, which applies only to places in which employees or patrons get naked. The county recently changed that ordinance, which attorney Begner believes will mean the alleged zoning violations are negated.

The county's adult entertainment ordinance often reads as if it was drafted by a prudish schoolmarm armed with a thesaurus. Prohibited activities include the exhibition of "human male genitalia in a discernibly turgid state" -- can't they just call it a hard-on? -- and such obscure acts as "zooerasty" (bestiality), "anilingus" (rimming) and "coprophagy," which, if done successfully, should result in a shit-eating grin.

As for the switcharoo on the name of the store, when asked if he'd planned to change it all along, Cornetta says his lawyers asked him not to comment. But he's very vocal about his willingness to take Fulton, DeKalb or anyone else to the mat.

"We need to go on the offensive and see how much pressure they can take," he says. "The days of regulating adult material are over and the people who want this stuff curtailed are dinosaurs. Unfortunately for them, I live for the fight."

It's that kind of in-your-face combativeness that concerns competitor Morrison, despite his own past wrangles with police and politicians.

"Cornetta has never followed the rules and it's caused problems for everyone," he says. "We're making enemies of lawmakers, which I never wanted to do."

As it is, Fulton officials are "auditing" New York Video on Fulton Industrial to make sure its stock of adult media doesn't violate the zoning law. And he recently closed the Memorial Drive Inserection after running afoul of DeKalb officials; that case is still pending in state court.

His more immediate headache is in obscenity-obsessed Marietta, where Cornetta has no stores yet.

But Begner believes the Cobb city already has lost its case. In their landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision in June, the Supremes recognized the public's right of privacy as trumping a state's enforcement of its own standards of morality.

"Justice [Antonin] Scalia said one result of that ruling is that state obscenity laws will not stand," Begner says. "It's the first time in my life I agree with him. I believe the death of the law is at hand."

If he's right, that's one less hurdle for the future proliferation of adult stores on Fulton Industrial and elsewhere.

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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