Nine booths and a topless go-go dancer.
For Suburban News, an adult book store on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, the combination has brought a stream of furtive customers, each with four quarters in hand for a minute's peep at the live show. For the Montgomery County Council, it has meant an abrasive debate on stopping the spread of sexually oriented businesses in the staid county.
Yesterday morning, council members bickered over a bill to render participation in "any obscene performance, exhibition, drama, play, show, dancing exhibition, tableau or entertainment" punishable by fines of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to six months.
The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union objected to the proposed bill on the grounds that it could be used to suppress legitimate theater and art and would not stand up in court. County attorneys came up with a reworded version to satisfy the objections, but late in the afternoon any action on the bill was postponed for at least a week.
Nonetheless, the council's mood is clearly in control. "You get a 14th Street atmosphere on the sidewalks," said Elizabeth Scull, one of the bill's sponsors. "It distresses the residents. They can't walk down the sidewalk anymore without being insulted."
Anyone in Montgomery County looking for adult entertainment has generally had to go to the District of Columbia to find it. The Maryland State Board of Censors -- the only state board in the country to control movies -- and "emergency legislation" enacted by the county in 1978 against obscenity have helped sex entrepreneurs out of the county.
The single exception is adult bookstores, which have generally been tolerated by the police and state's attorney office.
However, Suburban News upset the status quo last summer when it sought county permission to offer the county's only live go-go dancing. Looking at existing legislation, police decided there was nothing they could do to stop it and suggested a new law aimed at obscene performances.
Meanwhile, the store went ahead with its expansion plans, installing nine booths that look onto a carpeted dance floor.Customers enter the booths and slip four quarters into a slot. This opens a window onto the dance floor, where topless women perform. The window shuts automatically after a minute.
The store's manager, who gave his name as Ron, laughed yesterday when asked if topless go-go could be considered obscene. "You can go into the movie theater across the street and see more than you see here (in the go-go booths)," he said.
Neighborhood groups who are upset by the store's presence are unsure themselves. "I doubt that topless dancing would be considered obscene," said Betsy Taylor, president of a group called Neighborhoods Together. "What's happening at the moment won't be affected. But it will prevent them from going further."
Fear that live sex shows might be next is behind the bill. Indeed, the bookstore has just installed a new service: three pairs of what manager Ron calls "one-on-one booths." A topless woman enters a booth, separated from an adjoining one by two panes of bullet-proof glass. For $1 a customer enters the second booth, and in Ron's words, "communicates" with the woman for three minutes over an intercom.
As originally submitted, the bill would apply to "any person who as actor, dancer, owner, manager, producer, director or agent or in any other capacity, prepares, gives, directs, presents, performs or participates" in any performance deemed obscene.
But Edward Genn, an attorney for the ACLU, asked "whether or not you're burning down the house to roast the pig." The bill as worded could be used against legitimate authors, he said. They could "be criminally charged and put in jail for six months -- is that what you intended?"
By the end of the day, the County Council had been convinced that further consideration was warranted. The county attorney submitted a revision that would apply to "any individual partnership, firm, association, corporation or other legal entity that gives, directs, presents, performs or participates in any obscene performances, exhibition or entertainment. . ."
Dropping the word "prepares" was intended to satisfy objections that playwrights and authors would be covered. Removing "play" and "drama" was aimed at not legislating against these two art forms.