Gritty community activists have a reputation for: fighting burgeoning gentrification, closing down culturally tone-deaf eateries, shutting down racially-insensitive Broadway shows, snuffing out local smoke shops, and now a sex-shop set up in a residential Clinton Hill neighborhood has caught their laser focus.

On Friday, March 18, community activist Rev. Kevin McCall held a rally against the mainstream location of Romantic Depot stocked with  adult sex toys, and what they call “sexual health and wellness products.”

The store opened last month, close to three churches, one mosque, and with a school around the corner. Residents rallied against its presence, and the “gawdy” adult sex shop signage.

Is Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill poised to become akin to Manhattan’s Times Square circa 1970s?

Rev. McCall, founder of the Crisis Action Centre, told the Amsterdam News, “I was called to do an action in response to the tenant association and the residents that were complaining about the atrociousness of a sex shop in the community. I’m not opposed to anyone making money, or anyone responding to their sexuality. But I am opposed to it being 200 feet from a church, around the corner from a school, and across the street from a mosque. Anyone can explore their sexuality in any way which they should, but it should be respect[ful] of the community.”

McCall determined that ultimately: “This store should be shut down and moved to another area. It shouldn’t be on a main strip next to a school and a mosque.”

It was to no avail, but the Amsterdam News reached out to Mayor Eric Adams’ office and the NYC Department of Buildings about the situation, but neither responded.

Founded in 2000, Glenn Buzzetti has 11 Romantic Depot stores, situated all over the city including in Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx.

Walking through those protesting his store, Buzzetti said, “I am willing to meet with them, mediate with them and hear their concerns about the signage.” He added, “Walgreens now is selling sex toys…Walmart…Sephora…Nordstroms are selling sex toys in their stores. So it’s 2022 and sexual health and wellness is a part of our culture. It has changed. We are here to work with the community and provide great service.”

Local Madaline Mckay, “The people protesting for the Depot are not community-based people. They are from New Jersey blah, blah, blah. They have no connection with the community. None whatsoever: they don’t shop here, they don’t live here, they don’t know the people here.”

NYPD Community Affairs Chaplain Peter Jones said, “I am very disturbed, and I am very angry because they just opened this sex shop right across from a church and a mosque, and on the corner from a school. That is blatantly disrespectful because you’ve got kids that have to walk from school home, or from home to school––and have to pass this shop every day.”

McKay continued, “I’m concerned about the children. They are developing physically and mentally, and this is unnecessary exposure. This is disrespectful to the elderly. They don’t want this. They don’t need to see this.”

McKay offered, “Take it somewhere else. The kids should learn this at home, and as much as their parents want them to know. Put a library, but a bookstore, put a shelter there. Things that are needed.”

On his social media, Buzzetti stated, “At the end of the day, it’s not my neighborhood, it’s their Brooklyn neighborhood and we do need to be sensitive about their concerns because we are a new business that’s a bit racy. I do understand sex can be controversial to some people. After opening 11 locations, I can almost state with absolute certainty, and assure the community that most residents will not even notice us. The communities we serve all become desensitized, in about 2-3 months, after we open. It becomes simple like they are passing their local deli, when they walk along our storefront, after the initial shock.” 

“I spoke to Mayor Adams, and he said that the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings will be acting as a liaison between the community and the business,” McCall told the Amsterdam News. The paper reached out to Suzanne Debarngo, who McCall said contacted him after “the community members flipped out, and called me to protest its presence.” Debarngo did not respond back by press time.

“The Tenants Association had their lawsuit dismissed, because their license says they are retail, not a sex shop. They are not selling nude videos and pictures, it is just merchandise. The Fulton Street BID supported them. And the Councilmember Crystal Hudson supported them too.”

Both the Brooklyn Business Solutions Center, and a city spokesperson quoting the Department of Consumer Affairs told the Amsterdam News that while “Any business must have a permit and license to operate,” you don’t need a special license if you are just selling clothes and some electronics.

“We are not looking to have a Red Light area in our neighborhood,” said a local who did not want to be named. “But there are more gentlemen’s clubs popping up all over and trap houses. We don’t need a sex shop operating out of prime real estate on our main street.”

While over a dozen neon-sign hoisting protesters gathered outside the Romantic Depot to hail the venue, McCall claimed, “Some were workers, others were paid supporters.” Buzzetti literally grabbed several of his staff, and pulled them in front of reporters to explain what he thought was the virtue of the store.

Stating that with a flier announcement on his social media Buzzetti “paid people to come to rally” McCall showed a sign which had an image of the store next to the words: “Romantic Depot counter-protest everyone who supports us at 10 AM for this counter-protest will receive a $25 gift card, no purchase necessary. We have some extra signs, however if you could make a small sign it would be greatly appreciated, in case we run out of signs. They should be in support of Romantic Depot.”

McCall told the Amsterdam News, “This is the kind of business we don’t want in our community. Any businesses that have to pay people to protest for them is opportunistic at its best and should be called out.”

And then there’s even more controversy.

A mural with an image of the Notorious BIG and his iconic phrase “Spread love it’s the Brooklyn way,” was recently painted over weeks after it first appeared on the side wall of the corner street property. The location is one block over from the late rap star’s old St. James Place address. McKay said, “I see they took Biggie’s face down. He had his ways, but I don’t think he would have supported this. If his mother [Voletta Wallace] was still in the neighborhood, I don’t think they would have put it up.

“This is not what Biggie was talking about when he said ‘Spread love it’s the Brooklyn way,’” snapped McCall.

“I don’t know who painted over the wall,” Buzzetti told the Amsterdam News. The Amsterdam News asked Buzzetti if he understood the community’s angst; and if he had permission to use Christopher Wallace (Biggie’s) likeness. He replied that Getty Images owned the license, which he said he had acquired. McCall said, “He claimed that he had a 30 day license, and so took it down the day before the time was up.”

Meanwhile, both Clinton Hill Council Member Crystal Hudson, and the Fulton Area Business (FAB) Alliance / Business Improvement District did not address Amsterdam News requests for a statement regarding the Romantic Depot. Assemblywoman Phara Souffant Forrest also did not respond to an Amsterdam News inquiry. 

“While there are those who contend that it’s a legal establishment, it’s the location, which raises alarm and concern,” Olanike Alabi told the Amsterdam News. The candidate for the NYS Assembly for the 57th District added, “The presence of several schools in the area attended by children and youth creates a situation of exposure and curiosity.”

Talking to Buzzetti, McCall concluded, “The next step for us, since you’re open to dialogue, is to be able to have a conversation with the community and the leaders in the community with regards to this. I’m willing to work with you, and the tenants association and the block association.”

Saying, “Absolutely,” and offering his cell number and that of his general manager, Buzzetti commented that his staff worked really hard, and his “was a popular chain. We are going to do whatever’s right and work with the community as we can to make them comfortable. I think after a few months of getting to know us …we go to church ourselves…all of us, they’ll understand that we are more than reasonable, responsible citizens and want to work with the community very closely.”

“We are here to support, I don’t think that any small business should be shut down for any type of reason,” one female protestor told the paper.

Activist Renee Collymore told the Amsterdam News, “This is  a business that is sorely inappropriate for this community. There are two churches on the block of the business. There is another church half a block away. This is a neighborhood that has families and many children, and a school right down the block. I don’t think this is a fair way to talk about sex education. And I think that a little more thought should have gone into this concerning organizations that run Fulton Street concerning business. The community should have been informed of this type of business. It is not the same as the bodega across the street…or the coffee shop across the street.”

The Democratic candidate for the 57th District Leader added, “This should not be here. This was a cash-checking [place], and we want to remain wholesome in this community.”

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