There's nothing sexy about running St. Paul's last porn video store

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Thirty years ago, in the halcyon days of porn retailing, customers kept the cash register busy. Google Earth

Lonely is the retail porn business at Video Lease II on West 7th St. in St. Paul. Owner Jeff Noreen has operated in the same space since 1983. It's mid-morning on a weekday and Noreen has the store, the last of its kind in Minnesota's second largest city, all to his lonesome. 

"We're still in business, but just barely in business," he says. "It's mainly because I'm stubborn and I provide jobs for people who need jobs and I provide rent for my landlord. But you wouldn't start a business like this now."

Back in the day, rentals drove sales. Noreen was already using a blue and yellow color scheme when Blockbuster came to town. He rented "Cockbusters" to fend off the national retailer. His movie titles, numbering in the tens of thousands, ranged from Beauty and the Beast to The Devil in Miss Jones. Blockbuster would put a hurt on Video Lease II's business. Netflix would do the same years later.   

Thirty years ago was also the halcyon era of porn retailing, when XXX starlet Marilyn Chambers alone could keep the cash register busy. Today, he says, there isn't a single porn star who can drive that kind of traffic. 

"The '80s were good," he says. "We rented and sold VHS and beta, and Atari games. We rented out the old kind of VHS machines that had like piano fingers on them, the really old kind that cost $600 to buy. I'd say then [porn] videos, most of it from rentals, accounted for 35 to 40 percent of all we brought in because in the early days movies cost $65 to buy. Today, we sell more DVDs than rent."

What's also changed is the business' dependence on porn. These days, 90 percent of his cash flow comes from porn DVDs, mainly sales. His X-rated "virus-free DVDs" retail three for $25.

"All my customers are men now," says Noreen. "They're usually some middle-aged married guy. We used to have some women coming in. They were generally the bull dyke kind. But they stopped coming in for some reason."

With online purveyors like Pornhub and Pornmd satisfying America's appetite for free porn, Noreen understands his store's survival rests on the relationship he's established with "thousands of loyal customers" over the past 35 years.

"It's hard to compete with free, but people don't always like to use computers," he says. "The picture quality isn't as good. People don't want to be tied in with the internet. We offer total privacy. That's the advantage of coming to a store like ours as opposed to going online. I do kind of look at myself as utility. Our customers keep coming back because they appreciate the service."

 


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