A HELPING HANDBELEAGUERED AIDS-PREVENTION GROUP GETS FINANCIAL BOOST FROM SEX SHOPS

Like any successful merchant, Mike Vito gets a lot of satisfaction from the well-stocked shelves in his stores. And so do his customers.

Most Phoenix retailers may have had a puny Christmas season, but the seven adult bookstores in the Valley owned by Bookcellar Incorporated, of which Mike Vito is the proud president and general manager, had healthy revenues last month, topping off a strappingly good year for the multimillion-dollar business.

Like some other successful corporations, Bookcellar has been touched with the noblesse-oblige bug. The company wants to give a little back to the community that's been so good to it, and all that. ²Except that, unlike other Valley businesses that seek a Good Deed High Profile in the community by sending employees to man the telephones at a Channel 8 fund raiser, or maybe by buying a table at a symphony gala, Bookcellar has decided to battle AIDS.

The corporation will donate about $2,000-1 percent of its December gross sales-to the beleaguered Community AIDS Council, says Vito. What's more, in the spirit of good will, Bookcellar allows volunteers from the AIDS-prevention group to wander through its video arcades and movie theatres, inviting customers to AIDS-prevention discussion groups.

Okay, so you might think an adult-bookstore customer would have other things on his mind, but Community AIDS Council spokesman Bob Aronin says about 60 percent of Bookcellar customers end up attending the discussion groups, which are held in private homes.

Bookcellar even allows the AIDS-prevention squad to give out free condoms at the stores, a move that Aronin sees as thoroughly "altruistic" on the part of the corporation, which itself sells condoms of every possible description. "Allowing us to distribute free condoms is a definite blow to their profits," says Aronin.

Bob Aronin says he couldn't be happier with Bookcellar-and the $2,000 donation to his organization. There's no stigma to getting money from the porn industry, Aronin says emphatically, no stigma at all. "Every time we get a donation to help us help someone change their sexual behavior, we very possibly may have saved a life. We are far less concerned about our `image' than we are about saving lives," says Aronin, adding that the Community AIDS Council is Ôdeeply grateful" to the adult bookstores. After all, he says, money is money.

The Community AIDS Council struggles to survive on $95,000 a year from private donors, says Aronin. He pegs Phoenix as a community whose parsimony toward AIDS prevention is a national scandal among health-care experts.

"We are the only metropolitan community of this size without significant AIDS-prevention programs," says Aronin. Phoenix is "unique." Neither the state, county nor the city invests a nickel of their own money for AIDS prevention in Maricopa County. He says current estimates are that about three to five people become infected with AIDS in Maricopa County each day.

What about adult bookstores, which county health officials say are havens for anonymous sex?

Mike Vito admits his business does attract people with strong sexual appetites, but he insists that customers who engage in sex in his bookstores are booted out.

And he seems a bit hurt when it is suggested that some may think Bookcellar is fighting AIDS as a publicity gimmick. He points out that, "long before Magic Johnson," the company had sent its managers to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health to attend a seminar on how to help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Bookcellar has even paid for printed pamphlets explaining how not to get AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, he says. The pamphlets are easy to find in the stores. At Pleasure World, a Bookcellar outlet on East Washington, for instance, the AIDS-prevention leaflets sit right by the door, near a display of the hottest recent video releasesÏsomething that is bound to attract customers' attention.

We get so stereotyped, we really do. Everyone thinks we just cater to dirty old men," Vito laments during an interview at Pleasure World. As if to make his point, he walks past the biker leather and the sexual toys from Korea, past the thousands of books and videos, and stands in a section of the store that hawks "Bedroom Butter" and racy lingerie. "This is our `Couples Corner,'" he says with obvious pride, noting that "couples like to come here, too." In fact, he estimates that 70 percent of Bookcellar customers are heterosexuals, a group that AIDS experts say is less informed about AIDS than homosexuals.

"Let's face it," Vito says, "most of our customers are sexually active." He says it makes perfect sense to him to try to protect his customers from a killer disease. Preaching abstinence "wouldn't work," Vito says, not from what he's seen in life.

Vito pauses for a second and then notes that abstinence might be good for business because "we'd rent a lot more tapes.

 
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