An Old Portland rite of passage as important as those first moments gazing upon the 24-Hour Church of Elvis, or carting an ornate tinfoil dragon full of leftovers home from Montage at 3 a.m.—such is entering the corner doors of West Burnside adult store Spartacus, a wonderland of color, vinyl, and anything goes.
When the store opened in 1987, the street wasn’t exactly chic. “Burnside wasn’t much more than Powell’s, the brewery, and industrial spaces,” says Josh Miller, Spartacus’s current vice president. Today the gritty stretch has evolved into a sanitized launchpad for visitors to the city, lined with hotels and shops—Whole Foods to the boutique-filled Union Way—but Spartacus is still there, its windows proudly flaunting the latest lingerie looks and leather restraints for gawking tourists and busy downtown workers.
The shop’s retail buyer for lingerie, V Thongrivong, loves the curious ones who wander in. “I know people are very uncomfortable the minute they enter our store, and I wanted to take off that pressure,” she says. “We greet every customer who walks in the door and tell them to ask us any questions, because we have things to share.”
The shop was founded by Al Bedrosian, an Armenian from Lebanon by way of San Francisco, and his style-loving wife, Lynda. The pair felt the BDSM community here was underserved in shopping options (there was no Internet marketplace to fall back on), so the two opened a small retail space on NE Sandy Boulevard, churning out pieces for the kink curious—like Spartacus Leathers wrist restraints and purple floggers—in the store’s basement.
In 1987, the couple closed that shop and opened Spartacus at the now-storied 1,500-square-foot downtown location. They shifted their leather workshop to a full manufacturing space near the airport, to keep up with an international clientele and stockists across the continent, Europe, and even Australia.
Portland not only accepted the new shop; the community embraced it: “Stark Street was a hub of gay nightlife at the time. So not only did they find a great space right downtown ... it came with better access to a strong and loyal customer base,” Miller says. (The Bedrosians sold to friends when they retired in 2010; Al died soon after.)
Today, the shop flourishes as part of local ritual. It’s the spot to grab giant fairy wings for Pride, a lifesaver for dancers and drag queens, an insider destination for fashion designers amping up runway shows with sky-high heels, bachelorette gangs in need of party props, and, obviously, bedroom spice seekers. (Not that you’ll hear any juicy tales. Miller says the shop’s customer-first motto means employees “pride themselves on discretion and privacy.”)
The back room operates as a traditional adult store, with lubes galore, Gun Oil to Sliquid, the Rabbit vibrator made famous on Sex and the City, a proud display of the house leather line alongside a necessary “Please refrain from hitting other customers” sign, and a helpful staff trained to not bat an eye when you ask what goes where.
Meanwhile, the front room (once all ages, it’s now generally 18-and-over, like the back) is all about fashion and shopper transformation. Rainbow heart pasties sit next to gold lamé cat suits. Men’s leather bondage harnesses hang with care beside cute striped briefs and breakaway banana hammocks. A large chunk of inventory is devoted to plus sizes, so everyone can have the option to replicate Britney Spears’s “... Baby One More Time” look. One wall is crammed with what’s reportedly the largest hosiery collection in town. Day-Glo fishnets, those iconic sheer black hose with the sexy seam trailing up the back, white thigh-highs with a perfectly puffed satin bow at the top—they’re all there and more, typically under $20.
“I went in when I was 21 and bought black vinyl pants, a fishnet shirt, and some handcuffs,” remembers Julia Thompson, now an Irvington mother of two. “I only got about a year’s worth out of them before my mom borrowed it all to wear to her ‘book group.’ She never gave it all back.”
Stories like these hint at one reason Spartacus has survived so long. It straddles the line between naughty and safe without pressure. Thongrivong sums it up: “If we get people through these doors, I don’t care if they go home with anything other than some knowledge and some really excellent customer service. If they buy something, fantastic. But for us it’s all it’s about that Portland hospitality.”
Pro tip: The shop’s generous industry discount, 30 percent off any item you can wear onstage for your drag or strip act, is legend.
Pictured above, from left: Spartacus Leathers floggers, $55–57; Jack Adams striped brief, $40; Escanté Collection French Maid lingerie, $43; Dreamgirl teddy, $50; Pleaser rhinestone platform, $220, with Leg Avenue fishnet stockings, $9; Pleaser studded platform, $117; Fever Collection Elise bob pastel wig, $45; Be Wicked marabou robe, $82; Oh La La Cheri lace bra, $33; Spartacus blindfold, $24; Pasteas glitter heart pasties, $13; Bonitaz corset, $38; Gregg Homme leopard-print thong with breakaway clips, $37 (Image: Christopher Dibble)