At 30, Camouflage still educates—and titillates
In three decades, Camouflage has become a beacon of adult fun. It’s stood proudly and colorfully in Downtown Santa Cruz since 1980 and is considered a Mecca of lingerie, sex toys, frisky holiday costumes, and the single-largest supplier of vibrators in the county. And it’s all thanks to one single pair of edible undies.
In the late 1970s, Joan Levine was a wife and mother living on a farm in Felton, hanging out with the family’s goats and chickens, when her husband proposed she start a T-shirt shop in Santa Cruz. His own shirts with “Santa Cruz” down the arm were fairly popular, and he thought she could start a business selling them. By January 1980, she was all set up in a remarkably small 400 square-foot store on Pacific Avenue.
“After about three months at the T-shirt shop, I wanted to quit,” Levine recalls. “But then I thought, some people struggle and strive to own their own shop, and I here I was with one just handed to me.” Several business classes later, Levine was enthused and motivated to make her T-shirt shop a fun Santa Cruz favorite. Camouflage ads from the early ’80s boasted that the store had “T-shirts for everyone,” but it wasn’t until the next year that store would find the its true calling. On Jan. 31, 1981, Levine’s birthday and the one year anniversary of the business, she received a pair of edible underwear as a birthday gift.
“I thought that was the funniest thing ever,” she says. “We immediately looked for the address on the back of the box, called the company, put in an order and had them in the store in time for Valentine’s Day. They were a big hit.”
Edible underwear acted as a gateway item, gradually opening the floodgates for other, more overtly sexual products. The panties also provoked some local women to ask Levine to host a pleasure party for them, which, although she had neither hosted nor attended one, turned into a regular gig. “We were doing pleasure parties at night and the store during the day,” she says. “We started having vibrators and lube and edible underwear at the store.” Soon after, the shop moved across the street into a 2,000 square-foot space, which allowed to store to “get a little bit wilder.”
As the saying goes, the rest is history. Camouflage has been at the heart of Santa Cruz happenings, evolution and hardship for three decades now—toughing it out through the Jan. 4, 1982 flood (after which they sold shirts that read “Soggy Survivor”), a broken water main in 2000 that caused the store to miss out on two of its biggest seasons, Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and the apex of misfortune, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Because of its sexy theme, Camouflage’s relationship with Santa Cruz was not always a smooth one, and, while other downtown businesses were moving from their quake-wrecked shops into specially erected community tents, Camouflage found itself ostracized.
“The organizer came and said, ‘Joan, they don’t want you in the tent. Nobody wants to be next to you,’” says Levine, chuckling. “So they gave me the bank, where New Leaf’s Bloom is now. I was happy because I had an office, a bathroom and a locked door.”
After a year in the temporary location, Camouflage moved in to its current space and got a makeover to a more subtle style that it retains today. “It was a clean slate, a blank canvas, so I tried to recreate what we had, but I also went for a more upscale, European, softer feel—not as ‘walk on the wildside,’” says Levine.
Levine sold Camouflage to husband and wife team Ken Vinson and Shannon Collins in 2006. Seated in the back offices at Camouflage, the three exchange stories (“I never told you that?” exclaims Levine to the couple) and discuss Camouflage philosophy. Levine tells of the many controversies the store faced in addition to the post-earthquake issue, such as when the police chief came in to respond to rumors of prostitution, and when a UC Santa Cruz women’s studies class, led by their professor, picketed the store. “She had a demonstration outside saying how we promoted rape and sexual abuse,” Levine says. “That was tough. But people wrote letters, and we wrote a letter to Good Times saying our mission was to end the war between the sexes and foster love and intimacy.”
Vinson and Collins assure her that the occasional misconception or negative reaction still occurs to this day. About a year ago, a vandal broke the store’s front windows, most likely not in an attempt to target the business specifically. Still, Vinson and Collins found themselves standing before a busted storefront in the middle of the night. “I almost slept in the window,” says Vinson. “Luckily a passerby offered to help us nail some plywood up.” Whether it is an eager male customer assuming Vinson was a pimp (true story) or the store’s clash with the Children’s Parade in May (which is also National Masturbation Month—the owners take down the window display for the parade weekend), Camouflage will always be a bone of contention for some residents. For others, it is not just a “sex” store, but also a resource for sexual empowerment and example of strong sex positivism that has been decades in the making. It may have been picketed a few decades ago, but the owners are proud to say that professors from all over the Monterey Bay area now send their students to Camouflage for research.
“Over the decades, there has been such a change in the openness and normalization around human sexuality, especially here in Northern California,” says Vinson. “Stores like Camouflage have been around through all that—Joan and her staff had to fight all those battles.” Santa Cruz is now home to a small handful of adult stores—a business that, as Camouflage knows, was a lot less accepted as little as 10 years ago.
Much like their predecessor, Vinson and Collins were not in the adult store business before owning Camouflage. However, also like Levine, they are making the most of their opportunity: the pair became Certified Sex Educators (a process that requires 60 hours each of training on everything from basic human anatomy to kink), and put their staff through two weeks of intense training on all of the products and on how to make customers feel comfortable (very important in this type of business). They are also working on pushing a sex positive message to the wider community.
“It’s always been a very sex positive store,” says Collins. “I’m trying to make sure the community really knows that, and that we are open to all walks of life, not just heterosexual couples.” In her first four years as an owner, Collins says she has sold customers ranging in age from 18 to 75 years old their first vibrator, and has seen “every kind of couple” come through the store. She likes nothing better than helping shoppers—especially the shy ones—find exactly what they are looking for.
“Ken and Shannon are continuing the tradition of going the extra mile for people,” says Levine proudly, “which is something the staff has always done—I remember once a girl called the store, and she had bought handcuffs, but the key had fallen in the drain or something. One of the employees drove the key to her house.” The owners, past and present, fall into laughter. After 26 years, Levine will always be a part of Camouflage.
“I miss parts of it still,” she says. “But when I was here at the Valentine’s party, I felt so at peace. I’d been so worried about the store, but it was so great, so beautiful, the window, the displays, the people—I thought, ‘wow I can be at peace because the store is fine.’” She’s certain that its new proprietors are the right torchbearers as Camouflage begins its next 30 years as a Santa Cruz institution.