Extra-large jock straps, spell books, vibrators, zines about Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and a variety of poppers fill the shelves, while purple AstroTurf lines the floor and a relief sculpture of a heavily pierced, dark brown vulva adorns the wall. Just as contemporary feminists aren’t the dour, frumpy man-haters their foremothers are popularly imagined to have been, Troll Hole, Brooklyn’s feminist book and sex toy store, is nothing like the feminist bookstore portrayed in Portlandia. Still, it’s soon set to close. And looking at its lifespan can teach us a bit about the challenges of creating places that feel welcoming to all women today.
Owned and operated by Monica Yi, a woman of color and immigrant, the shop is intended to be staunchly intersectional in its philosophy and merchandise, prioritizing affordable works by artists and zine-makers of color and offering a 10 percent discount to women-of-color customers. And yet, over my many visits to the store, I never encountered another woman of color shopper inside, despite the fact that Troll Hole’s home neighborhood, Bushwick, is overwhelmingly Latino and the shop itself is located inside a functioning laundromat that’s constantly teeming with black and brown women. I began to see the store could be seen as a microcosm of one of feminism’s longest-standing struggles: How do we relate to each other across race and class differences to build spaces we can all share and benefit from?
Yi, a 30-year-old Korean-American graphic designer, opened Troll Hole with two friends in the spring of 2016. There are no Babelands or Good Vibrationses in Bushwick yet—the neighborhood has yet to reach the woman-owned-chain-sex-shop stage of gentrification—and Yi and her friends bemoaned the lack of local lube options, aside from Rite Aid’s meager selection of KY. Yi noticed a “For Rent” sign in the window of Mermaid Laundromat. So, for $600 a month, she and her friends decided to rent a tiny corner of the space—less than 100 square-feet—and separated it from the quarter machines and kiddie rides with a curtain. Troll Hole, initially envisioned as a queer, feminist vendor of high-quality lubes and erotic zines, was born.
But Yi is more of an activist than entrepreneur at heart. “You either use [feminism], and wield it, and work on it, or you just pick it up when it’s convenient,” she tells me on a recent day spent at the store. “Which is fucked up.” She eventually became disillusioned with the store’s focus on sex positivity, a movement that she finds too individualistic and politically toothless to feel truly relevant in the Trump era. “Obviously, I’m 100 percent for sex-positivity,” she says, “but I think the narrative around it is extremely myopic, and really centers around mainstream, white feminism.”
Intersectionality —a feminist approach that centers women of color and views gender through other factors of identity such as race, class, ability, and sexuality—became Troll Hole’s primary focus. Yet despite the Audre Lorde chapbooks and Black Boy Feelings zines, the Selena posters and signs informing “las mujeres de color” of their 10 percent discount, Yi found that many local women still weren't interested.
So, why has a space intended to be an intersectional haven struggled to draw a broadly diverse customer base? Well, Troll Hole popped up in a changing neighborhood divided along lines of language, class, and culture. And though the store stocks Spanish-language zines and art, it’s still a business run by English speakers in a neighborhood where Spanish is the primary tongue. It sells plenty of straightforward political merchandise, but its most eye-catching offerings speak to its web-savvy millennial customer base. (One of my latest Troll Hole purchases was a T-shirt bearing the slogan “I’m with her” above a photo of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.)
One 26-year-old Mermaid Laundry patron, Ciara, had never been inside Troll Hole despite the fact that her status as a young, fluently English-speaking black woman made her part of the shop’s target demographic. “I did stop and look at it, just wondering what it was,” she tells me. “Like, was it part of a club or something?” The very things that endear Troll Hole to me—the snarky, referential zines, the black Daria pins, even the pastel doorway fringe—may make a woman with a different set of cultural references feel like she’s on the outside of an inside joke.
But sex toys appear to be the biggest put-off for many. The other women I speak to in Mermaid Laundry are Latina, black, and Asian, and range in age from their twenties through their fifties, sharing few immediate similarities except having never even considered entering the Troll Hole corner of the laundromat. Even a laundry employee says she has no idea what's sold at Troll Hole and never cared to learn.
“It’s the adult gifts part that makes people be like, ‘Oh no we don’t want to come in,’” Yi says. “I had a couple ladies come in, and be like, ‘Oh my god,’ because they see the bondage photos.” Being in a historically Catholic area, Troll Hole's sex merchandise is perhaps the loudest accidental indicator that the shop is for neighborhood newcomers. Particularly for the many Bushwick women who care for their own or others’ children, a shop they wouldn’t bring a kid into is one they likely won’t enter.
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But simply foregoing adult wares wouldn’t prove an effective solution, not least because lube and poppers are Troll Hole’s best selling items. While spending a day at the shop, I witness a young woman enter and brings up the fact that she does sex work. “So many more people than you’d think do sex work,” Yi later tells me. The shop’s sex-positive atmosphere fosters conversations about that work, making it a rare space where sex work isn’t stigmatized. Plus, condoms and lube are professional necessities that sex workers can’t write off on their taxes, so the fact that Troll Hole gives them away for free can be a huge benefit.
“I wish the space could be twice as big, just so it could be kind of curtained off, to where kids can hang out,” Yi says. “I just want there to be more engagement with the community that’s here.”
Troll Hole can’t be all things to all women—a haven for sex workers and trans youth and working-class Catholic family women all at once. Ironically, though, Troll Hole’s ultimate inability to fulfill its lofty mission proves why intersectionality is necessary: Women’s experiences are so endlessly varied and complicated that any attempt to encapsulate them under one umbrella — let alone in a small corner of a laundromat — will likely prove imperfect, no matter how well intentioned.
As of December, Troll Hole will be closed. After conflict between the co-founders left Yi the sole remaining employee, the burden of running a space that defined success as making enough money to cover its rent every month became too much to shoulder alone.
When Yi tells her customers the news the day I'm there, most react with sorrow. The customer who’d mentioned doing sex work acts sanguine, however. “Is it just time to wrap up?” she asks Yi, who agrees. “That’s good,” she says. “It’s good to know when something’s run its course.”