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Sign of Times: One-Stop Shopping for Safe Sex : Lifestyles: San Diego's first store devoted to selling condoms has opened in Pacific Beach, the brainchild of an 18-year-old woman.

January 07, 1992|LISA R. OMPHROY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Standing in her pink-and-turquoise-colored shop, braces still affixed to her teeth, 18-year-old Tonja Robertson seems an unlikely crusader for safe sex.

But her cheery Pacific Beach store full of condoms is for teen-agers and others looking for a place where they can feel comfortable about buying prophylactics, she said.

She says she was tired of seeing her friends pilfer condoms because they were too embarrassed to buy them or hearing them complain about enduring the humiliating looks of supermarket clerks when they bought them.

The result is Condom Kiss, the first store in San Diego devoted solely to selling prophylactics. It opened Dec. 23.

"I am trying to encourage an environment where people feel comfortable," said Robertson, a sophomore at Fashion Institute Design and Merchandising who attends school in the morning and tends the store in the afternoon and evening. "This is not a pornography store. It is a store to prevent the spread of AIDS and infectious diseases."

The shop on Garnet Avenue offers condoms from functional to bizarre, as well as enough novelties to please any condom connoisseur.

There are condom hats, bow ties and barrettes, T-shirts with pockets for condoms, fortune-cookie condoms and dangling condom earrings.

Robertson said she stocked the novelty items in a serious move to encourage young people to come into the store.

"Condoms are very important because everyone is having sex, and God did not make a girl and a guy to practice abstinence," Robertson said. "Condoms cut down on diseases and pregnancy."

Robertson said she decided to open the store last October after traveling to New York and visiting a store that specialized in condoms.

"The place was so sleazy, and had these awful black walls," said Robertson. "I couldn't believe that anyone would feel comfortable buying condoms there."

Another motivating factor was Magic Johnson's bombshell disclosure in November that he had the HIV virus, she said.

The sport star's announcement "finally made people realize that (AIDS) is a main issue in the United States today, and that anyone can get it, school kids, married couples, anybody," she said.

With the goal of a condom store in mind, Robertson started looking for people to invest in the project. She changed her mind about sharing the business after she found an investment firm that would lend money to an 18-year-old college student with no credit history.

Using the title to her 1990 Geo Metro as collateral, the lender advanced her the start-up money.

"We loaned Tonja money (against) her car because she and her mother came in and gave me the statistics on the probability of the company succeeding, and it sounded like a good idea to me," said Frank Emanuel, manager of Fidelity Financial Services in National City. "She seems stable, levelheaded and mature for her age, and sometimes you just have to take a chance on people."

After Robertson found the right location, she had to get approval from the zoning board, which she said had concerns about her age and the concept of the store.

The board eventually listed the shop as a convenience store and gave the teen-ager permission to open for business, with the stipulation that she not stock pornographic materials because the store is near schools, Robertson said.

Robertson says she gets about 45 customers a day, many who come in after nearby bars close at night. Robertson, another teen-age friend and her mother, Pat, are the only employees.

"I am very proud that she can take a stand and not be embarrassed," her mother said. "It's hard enough to go into a business in the first place, but an innovative business like this is more difficult."

The younger Robertson says she has gotten "surprisingly few" complaints about the store, which is open from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. She said the unusual name just "popped into her head one day."

Neighborhood business owners expressed support for the young entrepreneur.

"I love the store because they are so innovative," said Patty Kelley, owner of Avalon Tattoo next door. "The shock value takes people back at first, but when they look at it realistically, they realize it is a sign of the times."

"It may bring a lot of rowdy little kids around here, but I think it will generate business in the area," said Paul Martin, a clerk at nearby Garnet Silkscreen. "The older people think it's disgusting, but the younger ones like the place."

Although Condom Kiss has not shown much of a profit yet, Robertson says she has plans for the business.

Next week she will sell AIDS kits (a T-shirt, condom and AIDS guide) to benefit the Children's AIDS Foundation of San Diego.

She also plans to post pamphlets and posters from Planned Parenthood in the store to improve sexual awareness and education among her customers.

If all goes well, Robertson says, she will open other Condom Kiss stores in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

As for now, however, Robertson says she thinks her efforts to eliminate the stigma attached to condoms are finally paying off.

"I had a 7-year-old come into the store recently and tell me he wasn't planning to have sex yet," she says. "But he said he wanted to have a look around just in case."

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