//Rose Kalasz, co-owner of Awakening Boutique, at the Broadway location in October 2020. Photo by Polina Saran | firstname.lastname@example.org
Walking into Awakening Boutique feels like stepping into a candy store. Dildos, vibrators and butt plugs in bright colors beckon from the wall displays.
No longer does one have to be relegated to cheaply-made sex toys or endure a searing stare from a creep lurking at a corner of the store. Carrying anxiety about one’s sex life? Owners Rose Kalasz and Tory Johnson provide enough warmth and reassurance that it’s like being wrapped up in a warm hug. It melts away any insecurity. One does not have to travel alone on this journey of self-discovery and safe sex.
“I want everybody to be able to experience pleasure, to experience safe and healthy pleasure and to feel informed about what they’re doing,” Kalasz said.
Awakening is stocked with every delight imaginable for the sexually adventurous. They have vanilla toys, like vibrators, but for the curious or more experienced among us they also have items catering to every taste. Body-safe candles for wax play, waist harnesses for pegging or vaginal sex, and paddles for impact play. The possibilities are endless.
The best part, and one that shows just how different they are from the big-box sex stores, is most of their inventory is ethically sourced from woman, POC or queer-owned independent brands. Kalasz explained that there are three major umbrella companies that own the majority of adult product brands. She said they consciously and aggressively avoid buying from these companies for the bulk of their inventory, right down to the lube.
“That’s how we chose our original inventory [too]. Not what distributors had, not what was cheap, not what was easy,” Kalasz said. “It was a very conscious and very thought out way that we did everything. Everything in here is something that we think a lot about before we put it in the store, which I think is very different than a lot of the traditional sex stores that are just like, jelly dildos and $5 vibrators, just throwing them at you.”
When she and Johnson first opened Awakening as a pop-up store at Modern Nomad in the River North Art District, the pair admittedly didn’t know much about the adult industry. Kalasz has a background in history and Russian literature. Her fellow co-owner studied marine biology. But the lifelong friends had a common interest in feminist and queer-friendly sex shops like Babeland, She Bop and Early to Bed that they had visited as young adults.
“We really loved those spaces and thought they were really important and cool and a great way to gather community,” Kalasz said. “We always talked about how weird it was that Denver didn’t have that. I guess we were kind of waiting around for somebody else to open one.”
They waited and waited. Then, a few years ago, they found themselves at a crossroads. The two had moved in together. Kalasz had just gone through a major break up and hated her job. Johnson had just been laid off.
“We were miserable. We were like, we’re almost 30 and we haven’t done anything that we love in our life,” Kalasz said.
One night, as the two commiserated over a bottle of wine, the seed for what would become Awakening was planted. Two weeks later, it came to fruition when they registered as an LLC.
Awakening started as a pop-up at an open-air style market place called Modern Nomad, which later turned into a permanent space. Quickly outgrowing their location within two months of opening, they began looking for a building that could house a larger inventory and community events. Two months later they opened their first official storefront right next door in August 2018.
From the start, the venture has been 100% self-funded. Kalasz had some money from an accident settlement a few years prior and the women pooled their resources to scrape together what they could. The profits from the first store in RiNo allowed them to open the second location on South Broadway six months later in February 2019. But it hasn’t all been a smashing success since opening. Challenges arose that the pair never could have guessed in their wildest dreams.
“The challenges we faced opening this place I think were really eye-opening and shocking to Tory and I,” Kalasz said. “I think we were really naive about a lot of things. We had no idea how old fashioned and backwards a lot of things still are when it comes to the sex industry.”
One of the main reasons Awakening is fully self-funded is that a business loan just wasn’t an option. Kalasz said before opening the RiNo location, she and Johnson walked into Chase Bank with a check of their own money to open a business checking account and were denied.
“We literally cannot get a loan from anybody. We couldn’t open a banking account with Chase, with Wells Fargo, with Bank of America. Nobody would let us have a checking account for a 100% legal business,” Kalasz said.
The business partners ended up going with a local credit union but then had trouble finding a payment processor to work with them. According to Kalasz, they ended up in a high-risk category, much like dispensaries. Banks marked them as high-risk for being flagged for child trafficking and illegal sex work. And despite now having been approved to work with an “above board” processor, they still live in limbo.
“We’re in a gray area with them and we have to be careful that we fly under the radar or else they could just take us down,” Kalasz said. “We got flagged last year and they held well over $10,000 for a month. If it had gone on any longer, it would have shut us down.”
Along those same lines, COVID has been a major obstacle for the business. The Economic Injury Disaster Loans were a huge relief for many small businesses at the beginning of the shutdown earlier this year. However, businesses like Awakening were shut out from receiving funds due to their “prurient” nature. Kalasz said the language of the bill was so ambiguous that even the Small Business Administration couldn’t help her after hours on the phone. Sex workers were also often excluded from COVID relief and unemployment for the same reason.
“It’s like it’s purposely worded so that they can tell anything sex-related ‘no’ if they want to. I think the wording is like ‘any business [where] the majority of your income is prurient,’ which nobody knows what that word means,” Kalasz said.
Awakening ended up receiving zero federal relief loans. They did, however, receive a City of Denver grant for around $5,500, which is just over a month’s rent. They also received $2,200 from the Paycheck Protection Program, which Kalasz noted was just enough to pay either Johnson’s or her own monthly salary, nevermind the other three people they employ.
Kalasz likened this experience to running into a wall. It was frustrating for her to watch bars up and down the street receive funds, while her business that contributed to the community in a positive way was cast aside.
“To just be told that like, ‘all these bars on the street matter—but you—you don’t, we don’t care if you close.’ I was like, ‘Neat, okay, cool. I guess I’ll build an online store in a week then,’” Kalasz said.
Both locations of the store closed March 16th for the Denver stay-at-home order. She and Johnson then got to work on building their entire online store, 12 hours a day for a week. Kalasz said the only way she got through it was by marathoning baking shows while they worked.
Getting their entire stock online was quite possibly their only saving grace. It also helps that they were slinging sex toys to a bunch of people who were either in isolation or stuck with their partners for a seemingly never-ending period of time.
“We managed to launch the online store and did decently enough during shutdown that we made it out,” Kalasz said. “We’re also probably one of the few retail businesses besides garden stores that people are really seeking out. [You’re alone] or stuck with just your partner for six months. And you’re like, ‘well if there is a time to try something new now is the time.’”
And try new things people did. A study by the Kinsey Institute published in May found that although people were having less sex during quarantine, they were getting a little more freaky when they did.
Johnson and Kalasz have taken great strides to differentiate themselves from places like Romantix or Fascinations. They want people of all genders, races, ages, occupations and identities to feel comfortable asking questions and buying products. They partner with sex therapists and professionals to provide information and answers in-store and online. They don’t sell pornography so they could lower the suggested customer age to 16. A great deal of care even went into the choice of “boutique” in their name.
“We messed around with a lot of [names],” Kalasz said. “Sex boutique is what we landed on because we knew we wanted to be like a curated collection of things. Not like, a Walmart of sex toys, but more like your friends picked [the products] out for you because they have your best interests in mind.”
For Kalasz, making sure people feel welcome isn’t just about ensuring they have something for every single person in the store. It’s also about being outspoken about their beliefs and politics, which she said is a huge part of their role as a community space. As people and a business, they aren’t shy about showing their support for movements like Black Lives Matter, or openly being pro-choice, pro-sex worker or queer-friendly. Kalasz stated her position firmly: Sex and sexuality are political and there is no escaping that reality, especially as a sex store.
“I don’t know if I would call us activists, but we are loud and outspoken about our own beliefs as a business, which can be risky and probably loses us business sometimes and definitely gets us yelled at on the internet pretty regularly. But it’s very important to us and I think important to the communities that we serve. It’s important that we are allowed to advocate for them,” Kalasz said.
Check out the video with Rose Kalasz below. Interview by Madison Lauterbach, video by Polina Saran.