To reach the pinnacle he’s at today in the retail world, John Kenney, Northern Virginia’s leading purveyor of sex toys and porn videos, has conquered many obstacles.
You don’t build a chain of 13 (soon to be 14) “couples boutiques,” as Kenney calls his stores, by folding to pressure from obscenity prosecutors, hostile zoning boards or angry neighbors inveighing against sin.
Again and again, local governments and citizens groups pondering ways to get rid of him have been stymied by the First Amendment. In Old Town Alexandria, for instance, no amount of fulminating by preservationists in 2009 could stop his Le Tache Couples Boutique from leasing space on King Street near a tavern where some of the Founding Fathers slept.
But now, in Fairfax County, Kenney, 58, has met a foe he knows he can’t defeat.
He says his 5,600-square-foot Tysons Corner emporium — once the second-most-profitable sex-toy and porn-video boutique in the Kenney empire — will not survive the high-rise redevelopment expected to result from the advent of Metro’s Silver Line.
The property Kenney rents has been sold, and the new owner intends to build skyscrapers.
Planners and developers think the Silver Line, due to open July 26, will radically alter the face of Tysons over time. And the transformation they envision — from traffic-choked suburban sprawl to a cleaner, greener, Metro-oriented future — won’t include “MVC LATE NIGHT DVD,” as the sign in front of Kenney’s Tysons store reads.
Nor will it include a lot of other “low-density” enterprises — strip-mall pizza joints, storefront insurances agencies, gas stations, muffler shops — places where three or six or a dozen people work but where thousands could be employed in new steel-and-glass towers. Many of those long-familiar, small establishments are bound for extinction in Tysons, real estate analysts say.
Auto dealerships also aren’t likely to last long, analysts say, because the sprawling land they occupy is far too valuable in the Silver Line age to be wasted on parked cars.
Kenney’s 12-by-6-foot billboard (“DVDS VIDEOS MAGAZINES & TOYS FOR ADULTS”) looms 20 feet off the ground just steps from the east gates of the Silver Line’s pristine Greensboro station. The sign dates to the store’s opening in 1999, before Kenney, who goes by “Bo,” thought up a new name, Le Tache, which is French for “the spot,” and rebranded his outlets as “couples boutiques.”
Within a year or so, he says, he and his green-and-white billboard will be gone.
“They don’t care about me,” Kenney says, jabbing a thumb toward the elevated Silver Line tracks running along the median strip of Leesburg Pike. “This right here, the last five years, has cost me more money than all the legal cases we’ve fought combined.”
He says, “It’s a [expletive] nightmare, is what it is.”
Half a decade of Silver Line construction made driving in Tysons so difficult, Kenney says, customers stayed away and store revenue fell 75 percent.
In addition, real estate developers are buying the parcels where Kenney’s boutique and several other businesses are located, at Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road. The developers say they plan to terminate all the leases, bulldoze the properties and put up giant buildings for people who want to live, work, shop, dine and imbibe near the Metro.
Their project, called Tysons Central, is consistent with the county’s strategy for remaking soulless, car-clogged Tysons into a transit-dependent, quasi-urban community.
Planners envision a supercharged economy based on a skyline of office towers and livable spaces filled with trendy retailers, restaurants and bars — a greenery-dabbed landscape inhabited by latte-sipping pedestrians toting shopping bags.
Kenney thinks he’d fit. “We’ve been telling people forever, we don’t cater to what I call ‘the raincoat crowd,’ okay? We’ve never tolerated that.”
Beefy and profane, with a cocoa tan, he’s standing in his store by a rack of lingerie (a kind you won’t find in Macy’s), wearing Ray-Bans, chunky silver jewelry and a glittering watch that he swears is the genuine article: a diamond-encrusted Rolex Masterpiece. “Our business is my neighbors, your neighbors, people that are just looking for something to spice up their lives,” he says.
His videos, dozens of titles, are in a room off the main floor. Most are installments in popular, long-running franchises (“Cheerleaders Gone Bad #5,” “Backyard Amateurs #26”) or star vehicles for acclaimed performers such as Alexis Texas.
The clerk, a woman named Kat, says Internet porn and on-demand TV shrunk the XXX-DVD market but didn’t kill it.
She says a lot of DVD buyers don’t have credit cards or aren’t wired to the outside world.
“Some are just old-school,” says Kat, 29, who declined to further identify herself “because my family is totally conservative Republican.”
In the toy aisles, you could browse for hours. Kat, wearing a drapey black skirt and fire-engine lipstick, says, “Okay, so everything in the store I have in rechargeable, waterproof, battery-operated and remote.” Also travel size.
“Let me ask you,” Kenney says innocently. “You see anything in here that offends you?”
He started in the business when he was 16, working for his stepfather, Dennis Pryba, a long-ago titan in the D.C.-area retail porn industry.
In a Reagan-era federal crackdown on the sale of obscene movies and magazines, Pryba, who owned stores all over the region, got three years in prison and forfeited nearly all his assets to the government.
Kenney picked up the pieces and rebuilt. Charged criminally with peddling indecent materials twice in the 1990s, in Fairfax and Prince Williams counties, his company was acquitted in one case, paid a $500 fine in the other and kept on expanding.
“For me, this is a family thing,” he says.
Doesn’t matter. He knows he’s not part of any investor’s vision of the Tysons to come.
Thrilled by the arrival of rapid transit in Tysons, developers and planners predict it will spur vast corporate and residential growth in the years ahead.
In the sparkling future they foresee, there’s no room for a half-dozen squat brick buildings at Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road, where Kenney’s store is among 10 businesses on a weedy expanse of cracked-and-patched asphalt — a six-acre site that’s much more valuable now than was before the Silver Line.
Like Kenney and his showroom of unmentionables, all the other tenants are going away: a Virginia ABC store, a Men’s Wearhouse, a big-screen TV dealer, a mattress outlet, a discount furniture place, an audio-video company, a Clyde’s eatery, a family-run computer-parts shop and a psychic named Irene, reader of palms and tarot cards.
The redevelopment that’s slated to begin next year at this spot — six gleaming towers with up to 2 million square feet of office, retail, hotel and luxury apartment space — is an example of what Fairfax economic development officials think will gradually happen all over Tysons, especially near the area’s four new rail stops.
The Silver Line’s $2.9 billion first phase, opening this month, is 11.4 miles of track stretching from Wiehle Avenue in Reston through Tysons to the Metro station in East Falls Church, where the new line joins tracks previously used only by Orange Line trains. The second phase, projected to cost $2.7 billion and open in 2018, will extend the line 11 miles west, from Wiehle Avenue into eastern Loudoun County, just beyond Dulles International Airport.
With high-speed public transportation linking Tysons — the economic epicenter of Fairfax County — to downtown Washington, the Pentagon and Dulles, the Tysons area stands to become “a major business hub nationally and potentially even globally,” says Gerald L. Gordon, chief executive of Fairfax County’s Economic Development Authority.
Construction has begun on what he says eventually could be “this region’s midtown Manhattan.” Next to the Silver Line station near Tysons Corner Center mall, three buildings, each 20 stories-plus, are almost finished, and Gordon has a list of a dozen similarly large projects in Tysons that are underway or being planned.
“The kind of high densities we’re talking about, the kind of growth in employment and residents, would not at all be possible in the absence of the Metro,” he says.
“In fact, the companies that are coming here, and those that are here already, they have told us specifically: ‘No Metro, and we wouldn’t be here.’”
NV Commercial, the development company planning the Tysons Central project, started buying the acreage next to what’s now the Greensboro station in 2009, the year workers broke ground for the Silver Line. Under standard “kick-out” clauses in their leases, the businesses there can be evicted to make room for redevelopment.
NV Commercial says it expects construction to begin late next year.
Besides the half-dozen high-rises, “we’ll be redeveloping the Metro plaza into an area for outdoor entertainment and outdoor restaurant seating,” Russell Marks, one of the developers, says in a promotional video. That’s where Kenney’s billboard now stands.
Gordon, the county economic development official, says what’s happening at Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road is the future of Tysons in microcosm.
“The big retailers that ultimately will go away are the car dealerships,” he says. “They’re land-intensive, and land is going to be at a premium.”
Yet some low-density businesses will survive, he says. Because the population of Tysons is projected to go way up, “you still need a drugstore” and “a lot of mattresses and food and electrical products.”
Kenney sells a lot of electrical products. Some use batteries, some have plugs.
“Oh, I . . . I don’t know,” Gordon says. “Where is that store exactly? I don’t know anything about that.”
Take the Metro to Greensboro in a few weeks — you’ll see it. Ask for Bo. Tell him how great the Silver Line is. Then back up a few steps.
“Look at this!” Kenney says. “Look!” He’s pointing at the tracks again. “They come in here, disrupt all our business for five years, didn’t give a [expletive] about the economic impact it had on us, and walked away. And somebody pocketed 3 billion on the contract. You know? I mean, hey, if I got 3 billion, I’d be doing a [expletive] dance, too.”
He says his monthly rent was $30,000 during most of the Silver Line construction, but lately, because of the plunge in store revenue, he has been allowed to pay less.
“We were doing $1 million-plus a year in here and paying $320,000 on the lease,” Kenney says. That was before five years of Silver Line construction snarled and rerouted traffic in Tysons, cutting off easy access to his boutique. “The business went from $1 million-plus a year down to $300,000, and we still have to pay the rent,” he says. “I got payroll, sales taxes, inventory, insurance.”
He says the lost business has been a financial drain on the entire Le Tache family of boutiques — 11 stores in Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, one each in Alexandria and Rockville, and one soon to open in Florida.
Although work on the Silver Line is all but done, Kenney doesn’t think customers will come flocking back before the developers’ wrecking crew shows up in a year or so.
Closing the store now and walking away from the lease, he says, would damage his credit rating and likely prompt a lawsuit by the landlord, NV Commercial.
“We’re not the bad guys here,” Kenney says.
Which was what he told ABC-TV’s “World News Tonight” five years ago in Alexandria, when he opened the store in historic Old Town. “They asked me what would George Washington think, because he stayed right across the street. I said, ‘I don’t know. I mean, I hope George would have come over.’ You know, everything I’ve read historically, George liked the ladies.
“So I think he probably would have enjoyed a store like ours, to tell you the truth.”