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Porn thrives, infuriates in small towns

ABILENE, Kan. -- Outside, the prairie lies dark and still. In the windowless gray building by the Interstate 70 offramp, a clerk with a tired face rings up sex toys. "Need batteries for that?" she asks politely, again and again, all night.

Two women in prim business suits gawk at a shelf of raunchy gag gifts, giggling. A truck driver searches thousands of DVDs for a pornographic movie. Near the Love Sling of Ecstasy, a wife confers with her husband by cellphone as she studies a tidy display of vibrators, hundreds of them, in every size, shape, and color.

Adult superstores such as this are popping up all over rural America -- brightly lighted, pointedly clean, as well-organized and well-stocked as Wal-Mart.

Remote freeway offramps are now X-rated in Quaker City, Ohio (population 563), and Nelson, Mo. (212), in Montrose, Ill., and Perry, Mich. The Lion's Den chain operates 29 stores in the Midwest, including this one off Exit 272, near the cows and hay bales of Dickinson County.

In these small towns, the arrival of big, brash porn shops has been utterly unexpected -- and divisive.

Debates about morality, obscenity, and privacy have played out at church suppers and planning commission meetings -- and sometimes in court. John Haltom, who owns the Dr. John's Lingerie chain, recently spent time behind bars in Nebraska and Utah for promoting obscenity and selling pornography to minors. He and other adult store owners also have taken the offensive, suing city officials for trying to force them out of business or state lawmakers for censoring their billboards.

Here in central Kansas, the Lion's Den faces criminal obscenity charges; a judge will hear the final pretrial arguments today. Lion's Den executives would not comment on the case. The store, meanwhile, has filed a federal lawsuit against Dickinson County for trying to restrict where and when it can sell sex-themed merchandise. That case will be heard in January.

Many locals find themselves deeply conflicted. A hairdresser says adult stores are wicked, then admits she might like to try a few products to spice up her relationship.

A sales representative says he supports free enterprise, but he hates to see his town collecting sales tax on obscenity.

"I haven't worked it all out yet," said Amber Brook, a young waitress. "I grew up in a Christian home, and I believe there's a right and a wrong. But I don't feel that gives me the right to impose my values on others."

The discord in Abilene was set off last fall when the Lion's Den opened a superstore in a former Stuckey's restaurant off Interstate 70, one exit west of the town of 6,500.

Lion's Den executives would not comment on why they picked the location. But several adult-store managers said stores on rural offramps thrive -- not because there's an unusually heavy demand for pornography in the heartland, but because the market has not been well-served until recently.

"There's no competition within 40 miles of me," said Jeannie Smith, who manages a Lion's Den in Newton, Iowa. "We're doing great."

Rural locations also appeal because land and buildings tend to be less expensive. There are few neighbors to complain about late-night hours. Potential customers stream by on the interstate, including long-haul truck drivers who will stop anywhere that's open at 3 a.m., just to keep themselves awake.

And, perhaps most important, out-of-the-way counties such as this one have few, if any, laws to restrict sexually-oriented businesses.

"These rural communities never thought they'd have to deal with what they perceived to be a big-city problem. So they were caught, as we say, with their ordinances down," said Scott Bergthold, a Tennessee lawyer who has built a career out of helping towns fight adult businesses.

Abilene markets itself as an all-American town, the home of President Eisenhower, Russell Stover chocolates, and the greyhound racing Hall of Fame. But that's not to say the community is all G-rated.

Along with the standard Hollywood blockbusters, the local Video Junction used to stock a small, but popular, selection of erotic titles. "We had them here 18 years and never heard a word about it," said owner Gary Sweatland, who stopped carrying them after protesters opposed the Lion's Den.

Just over the county line, in a dingy, old gasoline station reeking of cigarettes, I-70 Adult Novelty has operated without protest for a dozen years, selling pornographic videos and charging by the minute to watch erotic movies in a curtain-draped booth.

Even so, the Lion's Den stood out as flagrantly provocative, with its garish black-and-yellow billboards and its advertisements on country-western radio.

"This is not your Playboy of 30 years ago. This is porn on crack," said Phillip Cosby, a local activist. "There's no end to the depravity."

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