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Sex Shops Off-Limits for Small Business PPP Loans — But One Brooklyn Store Slips In

Please in Park Slope was fundraising to help stay open through the coronavirus lockdown, on June 9, 2020.
Please in Park Slope was fundraising to help stay open through the coronavirus lockdown, on June 9, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The owner of a Brooklyn erotica shop “had to get a little creative” to notch financial help from the federal government to stay afloat during the pandemic shutdown.

“We applied as a book shop, because of course we do sell books,” said Sid Azmi, 37, the owner of Please in Park Slope. “We had to play that game.”

Among the more printable titles at the cozy Fifth Avenue boutique is “The Big Book of Bondage.” The store also sells a variety of sex toys, harnesses and handcuffs.

Azmi’s doubt about getting aid under the Paycheck Protection Program was not unfounded. Congress created the Small Business Administration program as part of the CARES Act to disburse $530 billion in forgivable loans to smaller firms during the COVID-19 crisis, but declared businesses of a “prurient sexual nature” ineligible.

The SBA did not immediately return emails or calls seeking comment on why sex shops don’t deserve love, too.

Mike Johnston, a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce spokesperson, noted that while 84% of the borough’s small business applicants surveyed had been denied funding in the initial round of PPP funding, 92% received aid in the second round.

The Chamber also noted that 46% of businesses reported missing May rent payments and more than one-third risk permanent closure.

Pleasant Surprise

Mark Caserta, executive director of the Park Slope Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District, said he had “no idea” why Please’s application was successful when some other neighborhood businesses received no federal relief.

“I’m really glad that she was successful and they didn’t hold those rules against her. Sid has a great story and we’re pleased for Please,” said Caserta, who represents 520 local businesses.

Azmi was surprised to get federal aid on Friday, though she stressed that the amount “was not enough to cover rent” for the three months her shop has been shuttered.

Sid Azmi in her erotica shop, Please, in Park Slope.
Sid Azmi in her erotica shop, Please, in Park Slope.
Courtesy of Sid Azmi

“I never thought we would get anything because we’re considered a prohibited business,” said Azmi, who was raised in a conservative Malay Muslim family in Singapore. “We applied thinking, ‘What do we have to lose?’ I really think they were so overwhelmed that we kind of slipped under the radar.”

The nature of her business has meant additional hurdles and red tape, she said. She had to go out of state and pay more for business insurance, for instance, because New York insurance companies would not indemnify Please. She also had a difficult time securing merchant credit-card services.

Last month, Azmi launched a GoFundMe fundraiser which generated more than $4,100 from 81 donors, with donations as small as $10.

“We are a minority, woman-owned business hiring persons from the LGBTQ community; dedicated to providing an inclusive environment where ALL can come, ask and share their sexual inquiries,” the GoFundMe page reads. “This funding request helps to cover our costs but more importantly, your contribution helps us fund the projects that we’ve been planning for the future.”

Trained as a radiation therapist, Azmi stressed that the five-year-old business has never been “a money-making venture, but a labor of love and an act of f--- you to all who shamed sex and sexuality.”

Not an ‘Amorous’ Time

Please doesn’t look like a typical sex shop.

“We don’t feel sleazy,” Azmi said. “There’s no pink neon signs. We would’ve made more money if we sensationalized the sex, but I sincerely and genuinely think of us as more of a pleasure shop.”

“We’re diverse, but we want to look as vanilla as possible, because the material itself is so stand-out,” she said.

Not everyone in the community has welcomed the store, Azmi conceded.

“Sure, we’ve had opposition, even from liberal New Yorkers,” she said. “But it’s maybe 1% — less than 1%. And hey, everyone is allowed to have an opinion.”

While news reports have noted a rise in sex-toy sales amid the pandemic, Azmi downplayed the significance of any online sales increase.

“People may be curious and maybe bored, but I don’t think society is feeling amorous at this particular time,” she said. “People are anxious, depressed, deprived of both company and income, and are just not feeling horny.”

The shop is now only open a couple of days a week with limited hours for curbside pickup during Phase 1 of the city’s reopening. Azmi looks forward to opening Please’s doors for shoppers once the COVID threat subsides.

“It’s all about that one-on-one, human interaction,” she said. “You don’t get that shopping online.”

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