The Tool Shed
The East Side shop doesn’t just sell sex toys, it pushes for sexual-social progress.
A mannequin named “Gracie” stands watch, decked out in the latest sexual fantasy clothing. Her costume isn’t that subtle, yet the sex toy shop on Murray Avenue that she advertises is still easy to miss if you’ve never visited.
Groceries, housing, pharmacies, schools—every community needs certain resources to survive and stay healthy. Tool Shed owner Laura Stuart says stores like hers, which offer sex toys and pleasure-expertise, belong on that list. A city as big as Milwaukee needs and deserves the products and information her “erotic boutique” provides, she contends.
“We have a fair number of customers who come in and say, ‘I used to have to drive all the way down to Chicago to get X,Y or Z and now I kind of have it in my own neighborhood,’” Stuart says.
The Tool Shed opened in 2004 in Riverwest in the building where People’s Books Co-op is now located. Stuart took over the shop in July 2008 and moved it to the East Side at 2427 N. Murray Ave.
The core mission of the store is to provide a safe space and sexual resources for people of all genders and sexualities. Stuart says shoppers of all ages and races come here from all over Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Midwest.
“Sexuality education” wasn’t yet considered a profession when Stuart was growing up. “The field has evolved to be more professional,” says Stuart, who sports a pixie hair-cut and glasses.
Nationally, Carol Queen and Susie Bright, two of the first writers to inspire Stuart’s sex-positive, feminist outlook, own some of the earliest sex toy shops and have remained active in a field that Stuart says now has become a career for countless activists opening up similar stores and educating people as well.
Stuart’s parents taught her about sex, anatomy and sexuality from a young age. Her mother “put together feminist storybooks,” that consisted of kid-friendly magazine articles that “didn’t reinforce stereotypical gender norms and tried to develop a sense of curiosity in kids.”
“One of the things I was most touched by, when I was a grown-up I realized that she had spent a lot of time in the ’70s clipping children’s stories from Ms. Magazine,” Stuart said. “When I saw it again as a grown-up I was like, Wow, she really went out of her way.”
“Parents and sexuality educators of the 1970s were also motivated by wanting a healthier sex and gender culture for the next generation,” Stuart said. “Unlike their modern counterparts, however, parents didn’t have workshops or books to turn to. They wanted something better for their kids, but they were like winging it.”
Stuart uses the phrase “sex positive” to describe an attitude that embraces open talk about sex and views sexual pleasure and diverse sexual identities as healthy, instead of how mainstream schools and media typically portray sex: scary, shameful and wrong…but everybody’s doing it!
A few of the Tool Shed’s products, like some massage oils and wooden paddles, come from local suppliers and are only sold at the store.
When you enter the Tool Shed and look to your right, besides the usual local newspaper rack and flyer-filled bulletin board, you’ll see two large book shelves full of how-to manuals and literature on sexuality and health. On your left are lingerie for men and women, and then a tall, circular shelf decorated with colorful vibrators, dildos and sassy T-shirts with Rosie from the World War II “We Can Do It!” posters holding a vibrator.
The diverse range of products includes condoms and lube, (safe) whips and handcuffs for foreplay and a colorful collection of feathered scarves in the back corner.
The common assumption it that the Tool Shed only serves women. To counteract this misconception, Stuart has switched to a more gender-neutral (and printer-friendly) logo and store set-up. She also stocks and advertises men’s toys and classes, in addition to having two men on staff.
Stuart and Tool Shed education coordinator Lucky Tomaszek both say about half of their customers are regulars. New visitors come in everyday, often because a friend has recommended it or taken them there. “One thing I’m proud of is we have a lot of Milwaukeeans bringing in their friends from out of town,” Stuart says.
Stuart and most staff members have worked for years in fields like sexuality education, midwifery and “Queer Zine” archiving, which require an understanding of sexuality and gender from many different (health, political, cultural) angles. “I have taught sexuality education for people of all ages,” Stuart says. “I think kids should have an opportunity to learn about sexuality in a safe environment because it’s part of everyone’s life.”
The Tool Shed has only six workers, including Stuart, and turn-over is almost non-existent. “Nobody wants to leave here,” Tomaszek says.
Tomaszek worked as a midwife during the five years she volunteered with Stuart and the Tool Shed before becoming an employee at the shop in July. The Tool Shed wasn’t Tomaszek’s first experience in retail, though.
“I sold leather coats for a long time, and then I couldn’t take it after a while,” said Tomazsek, a keen critic of capitalism. “Look, these people don’t need more leather coats, don’t need me to get them to buy a pair of gloves that match their new leather coat—you don’t need that.”
Tomazsek and her coworker, Chris Wilde, say their prime goal isn’t to sell more, but to ensure that customers only buy what they need. “I actually have sent people out of the store without buying anything, and, you know, Laura knows it,” Wilde says.
“People come in and think there’s an off-the-shelf thing that’s going to help, or that somehow, there’s gonna be a product or a lube or a vibrator that, you know, this is the one that I need!” Wilde said. “And it’s like, ‘Well, no.’”
Tomaszek says she and her co-workers spend much of their time educating people about sex, pleasure and how to shop responsibly for toys. They may discuss anal sex and safety, vibrator strength and cock-rings, which can secure condoms and enhance male pleasure.
Stuart and Tomazsek say customers tend to ask the same set of questions about masturbation and such, often worried that the questions they have are weird or abnormal.
Even though almost the entire staff came in with background in sexual health or culture, Tomazsek says there are always new fetishes and issues to learn about, and surprising disclosures from customers. Every day, says Tomaszek, “I come home with a head full of stories I can’t really tell.”
Despite her early comfort and interest in talking about sex, Stuart says she never considered a career in sexuality education until her sophomore year of college. That year, she started a study group that focused on women writers and the marginalization of female voices in colleges. About 10 or 15 people (mostly women) joined, meeting up in classrooms and living rooms. They ended talking more about sexual health and reproductive rights.
While at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., Stuart also organized groups of students to march in Washington D.C. twice for feminism and gay rights.
Stuart then got her masters degree in public health at the University of Michigan and moved to Boston. There she worked as a professional sexuality educator and author for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Our Whole Lives program, which teaches people from childhood on about sexual health.
After 10 years, Stuart decided she wanted to move back to the Midwest, close to her family in Evanston. In 2008 she bought the Tool Shed, but she also works at Northwestern University as the Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention Coordinator. Her work week consists of four days at Northwestern, during which she stays with her family in Evanston, and three days at the Tool Shed.
The Tool Shed’s staff comes from a diverse set of backgrounds. Chris Wilde started working here shortly after Stuart bought it. She offered him a a job because of his experience in helping run the Queer Zine Archive Project, a collection of small-scale publications that focus on issues involving sexuality, feminism and gender.
Wilde avidly supports the Tool Shed mission of creating a safe space for people to learn about sex and sexuality. “I had never had ‘the talk,’” Wilde says. “My mom was closed-off about sex and sexuality and nudity.”
Tomaszek says the knowledge and skills she learned from delivering babies in women’s homes as a midwife informs her work with customers. In addition to her expertise on female anatomy, her work as a midwife also enriched her political activism skills.
“Every time you help a woman have a baby in her own home,” Tomaszek says, “you’re committing a political act, because our society says birth should happen in the hospital and people who choose to have their babies at home are taking an unnecessary risk.”
The authority of today’s sexuality educators is rooted in a history of “story-telling” and “consciousness-raising,” Stuart says. Although Stuart doesn’t practice the tradition of story-telling in her own work, she says those authors who wrote about sexuality still play a vital role as activists for a healthier sex culture.
“There needs to be a good balance of some people who are sharing their personal experiences, which helps other people realize, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one who experiences this,’” Stuart said.
While Stuart never thought of sexuality education as a possible career before college, she now meets teenagers who are interested in the field: “I think today, people are starting to realize kind of younger and younger that this is something I could do.”
Stuart says she doesn’t plan on leaving Milwaukee anytime soon. She says there’s a need for the Tool Shed here: “To me it’s important to establish roots in a place and try to improve that place, and that’s what I try to do in Milwaukee.”