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World Perspective | GERMANY

Racy Stores Planned for Autobahn

The rest-stop novelty shops will offer pornography in a comfortable atmosphere, says 80-year-old entrepreneur.

August 18, 2000|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLENSBURG, Germany — With no speed limits and some of the world's fastest cars zooming along them, Germany's autobahns have never been a place for the fainthearted. But with the arrival later this year of a brand new rest-stop service, the infamous highways will really be getting drivers' blood racing.

Beate Uhse, the 80-year-old empress of erotica, plans to open the first of several autobahn novelty shops and cinemas this autumn, offering weary drivers a whole new idea of a quick pick-me-up and those suffering from road rage a novel way to wind down.

Many of Germany's autobahn rest stops are already service and marketing meccas, with free parking and restrooms at shady picnic grounds, as well as gas stations, snack bars, restaurants and hotels to facilitate one-stop shopping.

The Beate Uhse empire, which includes more than 50 sex stores in Germany and 80 franchise outlets across Europe, wants to make it easier for customers to look at its pornography in peace and comfort, says the founder.

"German towns are very difficult to get around in, and there's usually no place to park," the entrepreneur, whose legal name is Beate Rotermund, said from her office in Flensburg's leafy industrial zone. "It's not so well-organized as in the United States, where people can park for free as long as they like in shopping malls."

Commercial centers of most towns and cities here are narrow streets of cobblestones and half-timbered houses, but what they gain in charm in the eyes of pedestrians is diminished for drivers who must negotiate the labyrinthine one-way streets and jostle with competitors for costly and limited paid parking.

Placing the Beate Uhse shops at autobahn rest stops also offers customers more anonymity, but the businesswoman who owes her success to correctly gauging what men and women want waves off the concern about privacy as "a very little problem."

"For people who care that they might be seen going into a Beate Uhse store, there's mail order or the Internet," said Uhse, who is recognizable to virtually every German with her year-round tan and platinum bowl cut.

"I don't think most of our customers feel any embarrassment in our stores," she added. "What is there to feel bad about? Sex is something we all do all the time and makes us feel good."

Taking the shame and risk out of sex is what has made this Baltic port city's best-known entrepreneur both rich and famous.

She made her first relative fortune selling a pamphlet explaining the rhythm method of birth control in the impoverished years after Germany's World War II defeat. Amid the widespread hunger and homelessness, many women--never informed about such methods during the Nazis' drive for procreation--feared getting pregnant and having another mouth to feed.

Uhse, a test pilot for the Luftwaffe during the war, suffered through the worst deprivations of the period. Her parents and husband were killed in the war, and she was forced to flee with her infant son in a two-engine plane of the defeated Nazi air force as Soviet troops conquered her native East Prussia, what is today Kaliningrad.

"There was one good thing I was left with after losing everything and being entirely on my own in this world: There was no shocked Aunt Clara or Uncle Edward to say, 'Beate, how can you do this?' I never had to worry about what my relatives would think," she said.

The autobahn shops are just one project resulting from the company's initial public offering of stock in May 1999, when 8.4 million heavily oversubscribed shares went for a mere 7.2 marks each, or about $3.35 at today's exchange rate. Share values have soared more than 120% since then.

Her IPO party at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange tipped shareholders that they were buying into an unconventional enterprise when hostesses in low-cut mini-dresses distributed champagne and breast-shaped chocolates. The company's first annual shareholders meeting held here earlier this month featured a pair of panties tied to a long-stemmed rose for each of the 1,500 pinstripe-suited stockholders who showed up to personally examine the annual report.

The specific locations of autobahn outlets, whose late-fall openings are approaching, remain uncertain because of building and leasing negotiations with the local governments, but the company has already begun spreading the word about the imminent enhancement of rest-stop options.

Beate Uhse AG has rented the side-panel advertising space on 20 long-haul trucks plying the autobahns through the end of this year: The ads depict a scantily clad beauty with a rose between her teeth and the cryptic English-language lure that a pit stop would satisfy: "More than a feeling."

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