Feelmore Social, Oakland's Latest Cool Bar
Heather Cassell READ TIME: 9 MIN.
Downtown Oakland has a new hangout that's a little bit wild and sexy: Feelmore Social.
"Feelmore is a sex forward bar," Nenna Joiner, owner of the popular adult shop and gallery, Feelmore Adult Gallery said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "We want to create a space where sexual weirdos can come."
The lounge isn't only for sexually forward and sex-positive people, Joiner, 48, a Black queer nonbinary person, clarified. The bar is also for the less sexually adventurous to be in a relaxed and open atmosphere sipping good cocktails. If they feel like talking about sex they can do so openly.
"They can feel open to ask any question and not feel shame," they said.
The sexy cocktail lounge is the newest evolution of the Feelmore brand. Joiner opened Feelmore Adult in 2010. Right before COVID-19 hit they opened the Berkeley location in February 2020. They also launched Feelmore Home in 2018. The adult shop is around the corner from the new Oakland bar. It's in the heart of downtown Oakland on Broadway close to the 12th Street BART Station.
Feelmore Social's official opening, a latex night theme, is June 2. The bar did a test night opening April 28 a week ahead of its soft opening May 5. The theme will be fun for people to dress up, be in community, and enjoy cocktails. They can explore what latex means to them, Joiner said. "Is that a fetish? Is it just an outfit? What is it to you?" they asked. The conversation will be in a nontraditional environment that's relaxing and fun for talking openly about sex and fetishes.
Recently, I met with Joiner for a happy hour at Feelmore Social to talk about the bar's concept and vision, benefiting from the pandemic, and being one of several LGBTQ bars owned by queer people of color opening post-pandemic in Oakland.
Feelmore Social is sophisticatedly seductive. Patrons are greeted by an original sign from the Lusty Lady, a former North Beach strip club that attracted feminist and alternative dancers to its locations in San Francisco and Seattle.
The space is warm, dark, and inviting, with dark blue velvet wallpaper. The bar has soft lighting. Sky blue velvet chairs pop with color along the white marble bar top decorated with flowers. Sex toys replace fancy high-end liquor on the top shelf.
The cocktail menu features drinks with playful names such as Golden Shower (I drank one, and it was light and refreshing), Breast Milk, Hoetic Justice, Power Bottom, The Baldwin, and Larry June Creamsicle (inspired by Bay Area rapper Larry June), to name a few. A mixologist helped Joiner craft the drinks, inspired by sex, social justice, travel, and other cultures.
"These are all personal to me," Joiner said about the cocktail names.
Examples of how Joiner's experiences and travels show up at Feelmore Social: The yogurt drink, Breast Milk, is inspired by Joiner's travels through Vietnam. The layered gin drink, Le Garcon, is inspired by their tour of a Berlin lesbian bar taken over by the Nazis during World War II.
Opening a business in downtown Oakland is personal to Joiner. It's their neighborhood. During the last decade, Oakland's business corridor Broadway grew darker and darker. Bars, restaurants, and storefronts one by one locked their doors and boarded up, they said. They once sponsored events and shows at many of the shuttered businesses.
Joiner wanted to expand Feelmore's retail footprint. But doing business as usual wasn't working anymore. It was challenging to open an adult sex shop. They had to address communities' objections and navigate local governments' red tape. The retail landscape in the United States was changing from brick-and-mortar to digital.
A new business model was needed. An avid traveler, Joiner took note of other small business models around the world. The businesses were adapting and diversifying long before COVID-19. They were also deeply entrenched in their communities, some for more than 100 years.
Joiner began branching out and launched Feelmore's home line selling candles, which took off. At the same time, Joiner explained, "We would have customers come in and say, 'Hey, where can I go and get a drink?' "
In the quest to diversify the Feelmore brand, Joiner landed on the idea of opening a cocktail bar. Oakland's bar owners met Joiner's interest in the bar business with silence. Joiner continued selling sex toys and kept searching for openings to see their vision take root and grow. One opening was finding the answers to their questions working for Alameda's lesbian-owned Fireside Lounge, where they learned the ropes of owning a bar from owner Sandy Russell.
When the pandemic hit, the remaining bars and surrounding businesses went dark. Ultimately, many shuttered. Oakland's downtown became a ghost town.
"We saw a lot of the bars actually closing up shop," said Joiner. "What is going to happen to my neighborhood?"
Unlike many of the businesses in their neighborhood, Joiner's business thrived during the pandemic. They pivoted by selling personal protective equipment, now known simply by its acronym, PPE, and saw sales increase.
The pandemic, and the wake of George Floyd's murder by four former Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, was opportunity knocking for Joiner. "There were very few businesses around here, ours was one of them, that was able to benefit and profit from the pandemic."
Joiner was able to finally see their vision for a sexy lounge become a reality. Shuttering bars were selling liquor licenses, and access to capital and new partnerships opened. Joiner did not snap up one of those licenses. Instead, they entered the California Alcoholic Beverage Control lottery, and won a license.
A business loan helped transform the space from a retail shop to a bar. Everything was Oakland-based, from the building owner to their bank.
"It's only when someone actually gets a stake in the ground or a key to a door that we can really see that things are changing," Joiner said. "I really consistently believe that economic empowerment and enlightenment is actually the key for a lot of people."
"We've had great energy here," Joiner added about the space that is now Feelmore Social's home. "There are a lot of big spaces out there, but this was something that I felt was very intimate, very similar to the size of the retail stores that we consistently put out there."
The fact that Feelmore Adult is so close to Feelmore Social is an added value.
"Now we can say, 'Here's a bar that's like-minded of Feelmore, where you can talk about flogging,' " they continued, stating that they are incorporating Feelmore Adult's culture of sex education, consent, and level of service at Feelmore Social. "I want to create a cool environment where people, music, ambiance, and kindness are the main stars, while people get a quality cocktail."
In addition to serving quality cocktails, they can up-sell a drink to a sex toy. Customers are responding positively, Joiner said. One of Feelmore's values, beyond teaching healthy and responsible sex practices, is being green and sustainable.
"We tend to hire people within a two- to three-mile radius of us. It is less stressful when you can walk, live, and work in your same neighborhood," said Joiner who bikes, walks, and buses to work from Oakland's Laurel neighborhood.
A business's legacy isn't about its size, they said. "It matters about the impact, the work that gets done, and the community it serves."
Being a business owner is all about community for Joiner, who also tried their hand at running for Oakland City Council's District 4 seat last year but lost in November, the B.A.R. previously reported.
Building a Queer, Cool Oakland
Oakland is also seeing a younger generation that is thirsty for a nightlife scene. Joiner pointed out that San Francisco's Castro District gets most of the attention. They stopped short of calling Oakland's efforts to build an LGBTQ district "intentional," but Oakland LGBTQ business owners, many of whom are people of color, are working "to create a queer atmosphere here in Oakland."
"The Bay Area has this culture," said Joiner. "If we can actually do the business culture right, we can actually 'bat signal' to other people around the world, like, 'Hey, this is where you should really be coming.' That's the history I want to make, this collective history I want to make with others."
Joiner is happy to see Broadway being revived with Feelmore Social and Fluid510, which shares a wall, after a decade of storefronts sitting vacant.
"I think it's going to create a great flow," they said about the new queer bars opening in Oakland. Joiner expressed similar sentiments to the new gay bar, Town Bar and Lounge owner, Joshua Huynh's desire to create an LGBTQ district where people can walk from bar to bar. "People want to walk" from one entertainment space to another.
Joiner hopes by people walking in downtown Oakland, they will see the possibilities the city has to offer.
Derrick Polk is an example of the flow Joiner hopes will grow throughout Feelmore's products and services. The Black educator stopped by Feelmore Adult, where he learned that the bar was open. Curious, he walked over to check out Feelmore Social.
"It was a pretty cool place. It was awesome," Polk, an Oakland native who is an ally, said. "It really stands out when you walk inside. It kind of reminded me of an upscale cocktail lounge in New York."
He told the B.A.R. he loved the chill vibe of the bar, the sex toys for sale behind the bar, the tongue-in-cheek sexual names of the drinks, and that the bar is owned by a Black queer person.
Polk plans to return to Feelmore, "I was very impressed," he said, stating that he will support anything Feelmore does.
Open businesses downtown, especially at night, make the "street safer for people to actually walk to those places" rather than drive, Joiner said. "They don't get stuck at one bar," due to driving and parking, they continued. "They can go to all bars."
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