Located on the intersection of 6th Avenue and South Cedar Street, Tandem Gear is a relatively inconspicuous shop between Casual Comfort Futons & Mattresses and Le Chat Noir Salon & Spa. Without knowledge as to its retail, one might think it was a bicycle or athletic shop. In the display windows are mostly clothes that do not draw attention to themselves, and nothing about the sign or design of the shop’s front seems particularly unusual. Inside is somewhat of a different story.
Tandem Gear holds not only a high quantity but also a large variety of items from anal trainer butt-plug sets to steampunk corsets and everything in between. In an interview with The Trail, Tandem Gear owner Doug Gonzales described the store as a place where members of the GLBT, kink and fetish communities can get material needs met that might be impossible elsewhere.
“This is also the place where we point [people with questions] in the right direction without having to go to Seattle all the time,” he said.
When explaining the perception of groups such as the kink and fetish communities in the area, Gonzales pointed out how frequently misconceptions about both communities are perpetuated.
“People sort of assume that what draws people to the BDSM, leather or kink community is some kind of emotional or mental issue… What we try to let people know is ‘No, that’s sort of the heteronormative definition of who we are, and you don’t have to let that define you,’” Gonzales said.
The film 50 Shades of Grey is, according to Gonzales, an inaccurate portrayal of BDSM culture because it states that BDSM is an activity or lifestyle taken up by those who are psychologically or emotionally traumatized.
“It’s very common for people to come… asking us questions about ‘Well this is what I like to do, is there something wrong with the fact that I like that?’” Gonzales explained. “We try to let them know… it’s okay to like what you like as long as it’s safe and consensual.”
When discussing the relationship between these communities and the shop, Gonzales says that the mere presence of the store in such a public place as 6th Avenue is its own sort of action toward visibility and acceptance.
The public nature of the shop, as well as its location between a salon and a mattress store, are indicators to shoppers that such products are not meant to be bought covertly or with shame.
“By being present, we sort of normalize the fact that this lifestyle does exist,” Gonzales told The Trail. “We’re not in the shadows; we don’t hide… the fact that this is a very obvious place lets people know that it’s a safe place to come.”
While intent on maintaining a firm presence within the Tacoma community, Gonzales also expressed his concern over respect for the surrounding community.
“We try to respect the sensibilities of the neighborhood in which we exist, because in general that’s how we live our lifestyle,” Gonzales said. “Out of respect for the neighborhood, and because children walk past the shop to get to school, we put clothes in the window, not toys.”
Gonzales went on to explain that this respectability helps ensure the longevity of the store, as it is much less likely to be criticized when its products are not forced on the community.
Alongside visibility and respect for the community, Gonzales also emphasized one more aspect of the store—specifically, its ability to validate its customers.
The example he gave was that of a transgender customer in search of fitting underwear, and the opportunity to provide apparel that such a customer might otherwise be unable to find.
“I guess it sounds simplistic, but every time a transgender person [buys fitting underwear] and they walk out of here feeling like they’ve been affirmed about the inherent dignity of who they are as a human being, that’s a triumph,” Gonzales said.
Ultimately, Gonzales describes the store as filling a “community need, not just a consumer need.” The shop sells physical items, ranging from books about bondage to men’s jockstraps, but for the kink, fetish, leather and GLBT communities of the South Sound, Tandem Gear is selling not just instruments of pleasure, but also visibility and respect, and by extension, validation.