The Secrets of SexWorld: Inside Minnesota's Most Erotic Icon

Tucked back in the Warehouse District of Downtown Minneapolis, past the stadiums, bars, and boutique office suites, sits one of the most iconic landmarks in all of Minnesota. More identifiable than Prince’s Paisley Park (RIP), and more generationally transcendent than the Mary Tyler Moore statue, one building serves as both an iconic piece of the local counterculture, and a rite of passage for Minnesotans both young and old: SexWorld.

From the moment you step inside the famed store just off Washington Ave, your senses are overloaded by T&A, S&M, and any other acronym you can think of that'll result in some sort of sexual act. Both the unmistakable fluorescent sign outside, and the circus-like awning of Minnesota’s most iconic sex shop, have helped make it a famed (and friendly) staple of the Downtown community for over 20 years.

It's also one of the lone survivors of the once-booming red light district in the Twin Cities.

Dennis Buchanan and Robert Bonynge initially started SexWorld back in 1993 for two key reasons. Buchanan recognized the business opportunity; at that time, sex was considered a predominately male industry, but Buchanan saw that women-centric sex toys would soon begin to penetrate (!!) the market. Bonynge, on the other hand, was just more of a... connoisseur?... with a questionably sexual appetite -- which would be easily fed by opening a sex store -- and an amateur filmmaking background.

(And by "filmmaking," we mean he was caught videotaping his Rottweiler having sex with women, something that eventually landed him in jail for nine months. He was then, unsurprisingly, pushed out of SexWorld altogether.)

Sex World
SexWorld

Despite the rocky start (i.e. the bestiality thing), the 24-hour store has attracted an eclectic mix of customers over the years, ranging from all types of backgrounds and fetishes -- many interested merely in immersing themselves in the fascinating, overstimulating world of sex via the unique experiences this Minnesota favorite has to offer.

"This place manages to maintain its status as a premiere Midwest destination for adult enthusiasts and those refusing to cave to the black hole of online porn."

The most famous of these experiences is the Dollhouse: a live peep show inside the store that gives patrons the opportunity to slide into the small, private(ish) booth, and come face-to-face with an actual female performer. The experience is much more intimate than your standard lap dance at a strip club, typically lasting about ten minutes and including anything from a striptease to a bite-sized venture into the world of domination and voyeurism -- all taking place just behind a thin sheet of (easily washable) safety glass.

Sex World
Patrick Strait/Thrillist

If the Dollhouse sounds somewhat familiar, it should: Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody helped bring it into the national spotlight when she shared her experiences working as a Dollhouse performer in her autobiography, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.

"At the Dollhouse, I compiled a veritable field guide of peep show oddities,” she wrote in regards to her time behind the glass, “customers who defied categorization."

While Cody may have very intricate memories of her time inside the Dollhouse, staff and management have been on record as not remembering much about her time at SexWorld. Some have even condemned the writer’s characterization of the Dollhouse, the performers, and the customers. Many agree there's a stigma when it comes to the sex worker profession, but believe Cody’s account leaves out the positive aspects of the experience. Several past and current performers have championed the significant earning potential at the Dollhouse, as well as the level of respect received as employees, which isn't always the case in the sex industry.

Stigma or not, the Dollhouse continues to run strong with a new generation of girls staffing the booths all hours of the day. Any employee will tell you the lunch rush is the busiest time for the attraction, with businessmen shuffling in to get a quick fix before heading back to the office.

The Big One, sex world
SexWorld

Another must-see (and -ride) feature at SexWorld? The Big One: a massive, golden, electronic penis that's been the centerpiece of the store for many years. Engineered by Buchanan Sr. himself in order to “give the ladies a fun ride,” The Big One has but one destiny: providing countless bachelorettes, couples, and out-of-town gawkers the opportunity to saddle up and take a ride on Minnesota’s most famous electronic phallus, almost like a supermarket toy horse for grown-ups.

No self-respecting Twin Cities perv can say they’ve lived until they too have felt the power of The Big One between their legs.

Sex World
SexWorld

Today, after more than two decades in business, SexWorld is scheduled to undergo a major renovation as a result of the building's new ownership. Construction is currently underway, as developers are in the process of minimizing the size of the space from 11,000sqft down to roughly 6,000, and subduing the renowned loud exterior for a more upscale appearance. The renovations have left many fearing a possible closure, but it doesn't appear the store has any intention of shutting its doors. In fact, these renovations to the hallowed walls of Minnesota's most erotic icon won't be the first: it has undergone several dramatic changes over time, expanding and then downsizing its space, from a third floor that used to host events like erotic art shows and the occasional adult-themed musical, to a more traditional strip club named Sinners just next door (which is now closed).

Through it all, SexWorld has remained.

"No self-respecting Twin Cities perv can say they’ve lived until they too have felt the power of The Big One between their legs."

With Buchanan’s son, Dennis Jr., having served at the helm for many years after his father's death (you know, the guy who didn't videotape women with animals), the store continues to thrive, with all reports noting an amicable marriage between the investor who purchased the building and the sex store. To boot, the landmark reportedly has a 15-year lease, ensuring that the lights -- neon and otherwise -- stay on for the foreseeable future... even if they are a little less loud than in the past.

So while the outside may change (though the yellow circus awning will still greet customers when they first walk in the door), the sexy, quirky, and unusual experiences that take place inside will remain untouched.

Sex World
SexWorld

No matter the gimmick, add-on, or renovation, the real secret to the success of SexWorld is the dedicated clientele. Even in 2016, when hardcore porn is literally a click away, this place manages to maintain its status as a premiere Midwest destination for adult enthusiasts and those refusing to cave to the black hole of online porn.

Let's not stereotype here. Yes, middle-aged men are the ones keeping the adult video rental business alive and booming, but couples regularly frequent the store looking for toys or outfits to help spice up their sex life. Toss in a healthy mix of newly legal 18-year-olds giggling at the sight of a lifelike blow-up doll, happily married men (and women) in search of the perfect anniversary gift, and even neighborhood regulars who just stop in to purchase smoking glassware or standard convenience store items (yes, SexWorld sells those, too), and you quickly realize this place is more of a cultural melting pot than even the strongest institutions could ever hope to be.

Sex World mannequins
SexWorld

But it's not just the products that keep this place running; it's also the history. Walk through the iconic store and you'll see faded posters featuring the John Hancock of porn stars hanging proudly on the walls, all with personalized messages to the staff written during feature performances or signings. This isn't just somewhere to pick up supplies for heating things up in the bedroom; it’s a place where you’re allowed to stare, where you're allowed to act a little bashful and immature.

It would actually be weird if you didn’t.

There might not be any industry that can confidently be coined as “recession-proof,” but the business of sex is probably the closest thing you’ll find to be a sure bet. As long as people want to have sex, adult stores will most likely continue to remain open.

SexWorld will be waiting for them -- fluorescent lights and all.

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Patrick Strait is a writer at Thrillist, and spent one New Year's Eve inside of SexWorld. Follow him @patrickstrait.