Conceived Mainly For Condoms -- The Rubber Tree Has Message, Too


Two weeks after Magic Johnson's surprise announcement riveted the nation's attention anew on AIDS, business hasn't changed much at The Rubber Tree, where the main product for sale is the condom.

If Johnson's message prompted many more people to start using condoms, it hasn't been apparent to the clerks at the 15-year-old Wallingford store.

"We have not been able to pinpoint anything as yet" in terms of Johnson-inspired sales, said Nancy Skinner, manager of the store, which is owned by the local chapter of Zero Population Growth, a nonprofit agency.

"Some people have mentioned it," she said of the announcement, "but they are not likely to tell us that is the only reason they are in the store."

At The Rubber Tree, 60 varieties of condoms are for sale. A sample of each hangs on a small clothesline, where customers can see what they look and feel like.

The store also sells "safe-sex" kits, lubricants, spermicides, books and informative pamphlets on sexual and environmental topics.

Zero Population Growth has dozens of chapters in other cities, but Seattle remains the only one with a retail condom store.

A few for-profit stores have sprung up in recent years. Condom Nation, a Philadelphia store, opened just last week. And two Condom Mania stores operate in New York and Los Angeles.

In Seattle, about 1,000 to 1,500 people a week either call or visit The Rubber Tree on Burke Avenue North in Wallingford.

Many of them just want information - information they are too embarrassed to seek from family, friends, druggists or even physicians, Skinner said. "Who can you ask about how to put on a condom?"

Common condom queries also include characteristics of various materials, shapes, sizes, lubrication and storage.

"People are often overwhelmed when they come into the store," Skinner said. "We don't tell them what to buy; we tell them the differences and that it is more important to use a condom than which condom you buy. We see ourselves more as a service than as a business."

The Rubber Tree's least-expensive condoms cost 15 cents apiece, a price the store has maintained since it opened in 1975. "It's a perfectly fine condom," Skinner said. "If price is a real consideration, people can usually get one free from a health clinic," she said.

Typical prices are $4.50 to $4.95 for a dozen or $12.95 for three dozen.

Skinner won't divulge the store's sales figures or trends. But she noted sales jumped in the late 1980s, reflecting wider knowledge of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The Rubber Tree's mission includes dispensing information to many people who call or visit the store without buying anything.

When the store was started, Skinner said, "it was very intimidating (for many people) to buy condoms, especially for young people and unmarried people, from a pharmacist."

Questions from customers have convinced Skinner the level of embarrassment has not subsided, even among sex partners.

"It is considered a lot easier to have sex with someone than to talk about sex with that person," she said. "We are still a little bit in the Dark Ages to have something that people are willing to do but not willing to talk about doing."

Though The Rubber Tree has been a long-time fixture in Wallingford, a condom store does not fit into everybody's idea of a neighborhood.

"Some people walk by, look in the window and think we are a neighborhood grocery selling tea in small packages," Skinner said.

But that notion vanishes quickly after you walk into the store, particularly if you remember the days when condoms were for sale, but never displayed.

The variety of condoms at The Rubber Tree - available by mail order as well - might startle a generation of Americans who grew up thinking there were only three brands of condoms that differed mostly in the color of packaging:

-- On display here are latex condoms, textured latex condoms and lambskin condoms - the most expensive at $23.75 a dozen (and a type not approved for protection against AIDS).

-- You can choose from plain ends, reservoir tips, flared or ribbed models. If you don't want to stick to U.S.-made condoms, there are imports from Denmark ("Ril Form"), Japan ("Kimono Plus") and Sweden ("Birds and Bees").

-- Condoms aren't all gray. Colors include red, pink, yellow, blue, green and gold.

If you value exclusivity, there's the Rubber Tree Custom Condom packaged with the store logo and slogan: "Don't Forget Your Rubbers!"

If you can't decide, The Rubber Tree has 12 variety packs of condoms. Prices for these packs range from $4.50 for nine non-lubricated models to $40 for one each of all 60 condoms on sale.

And if you are looking for unusual greeting cards, The Rubber Tree has a collection of nine different cards, each containing a condom.

You can also walk away with Rubber Tree T-shirts, posters depicting a pregnant man ("Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?"), a metal carrying case that holds two condoms, and nine bumper stickers promoting birth control.

The store also sells boxes of condom-shaped chocolate mints designed as conversation starters to make it easier for embarrassed lovers to bring up the subject.

"This is not something we can talk about very easily, and a lot of things go unsaid," Skinner said.