It was noon on a Sunday when I watched a twenty-something man wearing a tweed jacket and red Adidas approach a young woman behind the shop’s counter. He folded his hands on the glass surface and gazed up at the shelves mounted on the wall.
“I’ll take a dozen Earl Greys please,” he said. The young woman nodded. She returned a few moments later and dumped 12 condoms on the countertop.
“That’ll be ten Euro, please,” she said.
Out of context this scene could be a parody, but at the Condomerie, the world’s first specialty condom shop, it’s business as usual.
The latex treasure trove, located in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, has been selling condoms and advising customers about safe-sex since 1987.
Before its doors opened on Sunday, a group of people formed outside—peering into windows, pointing at brightly colored condoms strung across wires like holiday lights. Cartoon condoms with smiling faces and clown noses perched in the window display, welcoming in passerby.
The Condomerie is more than a business with an unusually stimulating storefront, though, said Theodoor van Boven, one of the shop’s founders. It’s erected a philosophy thrusting beyond novelty products and laughs. It’s an important institution in modern sexual history—dedicated to providing health-concerned guidance to ensure responsible, protected sex, he said. The idea is plentiful discourse leads to safe intercourse.
“We believe in openness, knowledge, and generating helpful conversation about sex,” said van Boven. “We’re safe sexperts at the Condomerie.”
The specialty shop was founded in the eighties by van Boven, Mirijke Vilijn, and Ricky Jansen. On April 10, 1987, the three friends sat in a bar in Amsterdam discussing AIDS, a disease widely pervading the thoughts and bodies of people since the start of the decade. It was clear that protection had become essential for everyone, said van Boven.
However, there were sparse contraceptive options available and insufficient sexual health information, Vilijn said.
“The only place to get advice was the pharmacy and they only sold Durex,” said Vilijn. “We needed more information and more choices.”
One month later, the Condomerie opened its doors. Vilijn said it quickly became a place people flocked to for information and choices—combining important ingredients of empowerment. Over the years, Vilijn said it’s upheld its pledge to advocate protection while furthering accessibility, and people still fill the shop every day. In fact, the Condomerie gets about 600,000 to 1.2 million visitors each year, said Vilijn.
A young woman flipped the “closed” sign to “open” and people spilled into the shop. Chatter and giggles filled the high, airy ceilings and people bustled about, curiosity guiding feet across the hardwood floors of the small space.
Ninka Lavir works at the Condomerie, and has been helping customers navigate this latex jungle for two years.
“Choice is important,” said Lavir, echoing the philosophy of the shop’s founders. Lavir said the options can be overwhelming, and offering educated advice is a central part of her job.
“It’s important you use the right kinds of products for your body,” said Lavir. She said she often gets questions about allergies to latex, sensitivities to materials in lubricants, and ill-fitting sizes.
The Condomerie boasts over 35 different condom brands, offered in nearly 10 sizes, and in a variety of materials, textures, thicknesses, scents, and flavors. There’s even features like glow-in-the-dark and vegan condoms, too.
“Everyone is different and it’s important to keep your body healthy,” said Lavir.
One size doesn’t fit all—but one price doesn’t fit all wallets either. The Condomerie strives to make protection available to all. You can get three condoms for €.59, 12 for €1.20, or even 144 pieces for €14.20.
“Practicing safe sex shouldn’t be expensive,” said Lavir.
Selling condoms doesn’t need to be boring either. There’s a five-foot multi-colored paper maché condom suspended above the left side of the shop. Underneath the sheath, there’s a glass case featuring novelty condoms—windmills, skyscrapers, the Eiffel Tower. It’s like Willy Wonka opened a condom shop.
“We sell nonsense and it’s very important,” said van Boven, who previously worked as a freelance cartoonist. He said they’ve applied the power of humor to the Condomerie.
“Jokes make serious matters more accessible,” said van Boven. “Comedy opens people up.”
At the front of the shop, customer Naomi Gartias, an advertising professional touring from Puerto Rico, peered into a glass case of condoms hand-painted to look like animals. She pointed out a giraffe to her friend, and threw her head back and laughed.
“We came in because it’s nice to see something different,” said Gartias. “It’s also a good gift for our friend. We thought we could make a laugh out of it.”
It’s evident in the faces of customers, the big eyes, pointing, and subsequent eruption of laughter, that the Condomerie achieved something it set out to do—make safe sex fun.
“Our very existence has erased the taboo of selling and purchasing condoms,” said van Boven.
The brightly colored latex may have initially drawn Garatias in, but she said appreciates the shop’s philosophy as much as its products.
“It’s a really good concept,” she said. “Protection is something that you should sponsor in every country. We’re from a country that is a little bit too puritanical and moralist and there are a lot of younger pregnancies.”
Although the Condomerie is located in a progressive country, in a city that hosts arguably the most open sex culture, Van Boven said there’s friction in government sponsored reproductive rights in the Netherlands, too.
The fight for sponsoring safe sex is still ongoing in most corners of the world, said van Boven. We’re all a bit too prudish when it comes to talking about sex, he said, and a more open approach would be beneficial to the world’s health. Sex is an enjoyable part of life and we should approach it from an empowered place, not an embarrassed place, he said.
“Everyone can use a bit more lubrication,” said van Boven.
The Condomerie provides that lubrication—from education, choice, and accessibility, it’s helping people navigate sex with a little more ease.