Monday, June 25, 2018
Business

Tampa institution Todd Couples Superstore finds new home in Port Richey

PORT RICHEY — Ashley Brown was looking for a fun way to make a living when she noticed a help wanted ad for a clerk at the Todd Couples Superstore on U.S. 19.

Now her job, as she sees it, is to bring couples together.

"This is about building relationships," said Brown, 21. "What we do is help them to be more intimate in the bedroom."

Brown was among the first hired when "the Todd" debuted its Pasco County store four weeks ago — the legendary retailer's first expansion since it opened 45 years ago in Tampa. A grand opening celebration is set Friday through Sunday with coupons, merchandise raffles and refreshments. Radio stations WSUN-FM 97.1, WLLD-FM 94.1 and WPOI-FM 101.5 are set to broadcast live from the store.

Now Brown finds herself surrounded by tools of the trade — sex toys, lingerie, shoes, costumes, flavored lotions and a smattering of adult videos in a small room in the back.

To be sure, the Todd is about intimacy. The place is floor-to-ceiling sex, with an entire wall devoted to brightly colored vibrators and similar novelties. But it's more welcoming and transparent than passersby might surmise: This is no X-rated DVD business with private viewing booths or a darkened theater.

Movies are available, but for home use, and they represent a sliver of overall sales at the Port Richey store and account for less than 1 percent of its inventory.

It wasn't like that always, though.

The Todd operated as an adult theater with about 200 seats when it opened at Nebraska and Fowler avenues in Tampa in 1969. Named for the owner's son, the theater was purchased a few years later by Tony Arnone.

The place quickly gained a following, as well as notoriety with screenings of Deep Throat, the 1972 porn movie starring Linda Lovelace that was banned in some cities and became the target of FBI investigations and obscenity trials.

About 25 years ago, the theater moved to its current home at Nebraska and Fletcher avenues and shifted toward renting and selling videocassettes.

By the mid 1980s, it added novelties. Movies are still sold, but with the growth of online streaming sites, the emphasis shifted from DVDs to lingerie and novelties. In 2009, the Todd added "Couples Superstore" to its name.

"The Internet changed everything," co-owner Shayne Arnone, Tony Arnone's 27-year-old grandson, said. "As DVDs were going out, we became more open to a female audience."

That strategy carried over to the new location, a former paint store at 10831 U.S. 19.

Arnone and business partner Carlton Mallard, 30, invested about $1 million to buy the site, renovate it and stock the 6,000-square-foot store's acres of display racks.

They settled on Pasco after finding Hillsborough County's zoning laws too stringent.

That might sound odd given Tampa's famous Mons Venus and slew of other adult businesses along Dale Mabry Highway and parts of State Road 60. But Arnone and Mallard wanted to explore commercial areas east of Interstate 75 in Brandon.

As they saw it, the Todd is as mainstream as it gets when it comes to sex, and they wanted a location that women and couples would feel comfortable visiting. Hillsborough's rules, meanwhile, restricted their business to industrial corridors mostly west of the interstate. That led them to consider Pasco.

"This is about couples," Arnone said, adding that about half of his sales at the Tampa location now come from women.

Arnone learned that in Pasco, the store was permitted at commercial zones provided it abstained from showing X-rated movies or live performances.

That wasn't a problem for Arnone and Mallard, whose aim was to create an environment resembling any mall-like clothier — except for the merchandise, of course — with brightly lit spaces, fuchsia-colored columns, two private dressing rooms and acres of clothing racks and shoe displays.

"Our customer service is comparable to any mainstream department store," Arnone said. "Sometimes it's not about adding something naughty. It's about introducing something different to the bedroom. What we provide are great products and great customer service."

That strategy separates the retailer from its online counterparts, although it took some getting used to.

Encouraged to interact with customers and answer questions, Brown, a former bartender and prep cook from New Port Richey, said it seemed strange at first to discuss a particular vibrator or chat with total strangers about the intimate details of their lives.

That is, until she realized that intimacy — in some shape, form or color — is what the Todd sells and is all about, really.

"It took about a day to get over it," she said.

It took less time for 26-year-old Karisa Franz of Spring Hill, who previously worked at an adult book store and marveled at the brightly lit Todd when she started.

By comparison, video stores are "dark and creepy," said Franz, adding, "This isn't a porn store. It isn't a sex shop. We sell products to help couples."

Depending on how well intimacy sells, The Todd might expand again.

Arnone and Mallard said they're mulling whether to open a store in Pinellas County, but they're in no hurry. They want to see how things go in Pasco.

"It's more of a three- to five-year goal," Mallard said. "The goal is ultimately to go to the Pinellas area. We think there's good opportunity in Pinellas."

Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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