In the old days, if you wanted porn you had to go buy it at a seedy store or watch it at a peep show among the raincoat crowd. Though most of them were put out of business by home media and the Internet, Detroit — long a destination for vice — still has several of them catering to those who enjoy being aroused in public.
Fifth Wheel Books, on Michigan Avenue east of Wyoming, is an anachronism. It’s an old brick-and-mortar porno store complete with individual and “buddy” booths for peep-shows.
Named for the hitch that joins a semi-trailer with a truck, the store’s owned by camera-shy Ray and Mary Kay Bauer, who took over after its last owner, Mary Kay’s mom, died a few years ago.
There are two Fifth Wheel stores: The original opened between truck stops on Schaefer Highway in 1970, and the Michigan Avenue shop, the larger of the two, opened a year or so later. Ray, 65, runs the store on Michigan; his wife, 45, is behind the counter at the other.
As Mary Kay recounts the history, her father, Earl Prieur, started the business, and when he died years ago, his wife, Irene, had to step in. “My mother was a housewife, and she knew nothing about nothing,” Mary Kay says. “She had to walk into it and figure out what to do and how to do it.”
“In the ’70s, it was totally different than it is now,” she says. “People are more open to sex and sexual-oriented things. Back then it was kind of like a taboo thing, especially with her running the store. She’d be behind the register and men would come in and walk out. They’d say, ‘Oh, my God’ and she’d have to explain, ‘I’m Earl’s wife. He died and here I am. I’m staying.’”
The store is divided into two parts. The front sells dozens of lubricants and hundreds of DVDs sorted according to various sexual predispositions and racial categories. Scores of colorful dildos line the shelves, pointing stiffly skyward.
The back part of the store houses the darkened peep-show room, featuring a dozen cramped booths, each outfitted with a small bench, a wastebasket and a 17-inch video screen with 32 flicks to choose from.
A minute of porn costs a 25-cent token. To keep the merriment going, a customer needs to insert a token into the slot every minute until self-satisfied. Though patrons are expected to clean up any DNA samples left behind, an employee also scrubs each booth daily.
Half the booths include a 22-inch-by-22-inch opaque window. These are what Ray calls “buddy booths,” where men in adjoining booths can agree to watch each other’s style. “Somebody goes into one door, somebody goes into the next one; if they choose they can hit a button, the fog clears, you can see each other,” Ray says. “It’s a glass, but both parties have to hit a button and it clears.” Often, movie buffs emerge from the booths and leave together, or ask Ray for a pen to exchange phone numbers.
Years back, the store was targeted by an anti-pornography neighborhood group. “All of a sudden they discovered the store was here,” Mary Kay says. “We had nuns in here trying to take pictures of things. They went to the house too; they thought they were going to shock the neighbors. They had the camera crews and everybody there. And the neighbors told them, ‘Get off our property.’”
Despite more relaxed attitudes nowadays, some still chafe at having a pornographic establishment in the neighborhood — the place was set on fire twice last year, according to the Bauers. It survived, but smoke damage and insurance delays closed it for eight months. “The insurance guy told me, ‘Don’t worry, you can wash off some of this stuff and resell it,’” Mary Kay says. “I said ‘I’ll tell you what — you take that dong home to your wife, stick it up her wazoo, call me and tell me how she likes it.” They replaced every last smoke-stained dildo, pocket pal and lube bottle in the store, she says.
Prostitutes used to loiter outside the store, which is by a squalid motel, itself next to a shabby strip club. For all the changes in Detroit, parts of Michigan Avenue are still sleazy. The police cleared most of the hookers away, though now and then Ray says he might chase off a stray, interrupting a day otherwise spent dispensing tokens for the steady stream of lone men coming through the door.
“They’re gentlemen, they just take care of themselves,” he says. “If they wanna go into the buddy booths, they can do that and look at each other. I don’t give a shit, if that’s their cup of tea. Whatever floats your boat, you go for it.”
Fifth Wheel Books II is located at 9320 Michigan Ave., Detroit. For more information call 313-846-8613.
This article originally appeared in the Metro Times.