Gay Soho store Prowler is celebrating its 20th year of trading this month with a series of events and special offers to mark its birthday throughout June. Founder Simon Topham tells the early story of the Prowler Store and announces the hopes of new owners ABS Holdings.
Time goes by so quickly when you’re having fun and who knew that Prowler has been open in Soho for 20 years this June? Yes, it was June 1997 that Prowler Soho opened at its superb corner site on Brewer Street and Rupert Street.
The site used to be a sex cinema, The Astral, when earlier that year the owner, Alan Poulton, approached Neal Cavalier-Smith and myself and asked us if we fancied opening a store in Soho. Neal and I, running Prowler’s magazine and mail-order empire, naturally jumped at the opportunity. Sites in Soho like this one just didn’t come on the market.
At the time Soho was in the middle of its gay renaissance. What had been a seedy but strangely glamorous district full of dive bars, madams and drunken artists began to change character in the early 90s. The traditional old sex industry began to be replaced by businesses catering for the gay community. Bars such as Comptons, The Edge, The Village and The Yard opened.
All of a sudden walking down Old Compton Street became the most fashionable and fun activity for gay men in town. The bars, clubs, cafes and shops kept the Soho scene buzzing, so it was a perfect time to open the new Prowler store. Neal and I wanted it to be different from any other gay shop that then existed. We maximised the fantastic big plate glass windows and had the store open, out and proud. A gay store on view in total contrast to the old blocked-in windows of the old fashioned gay shops.
At the opening there was a strange circular room in the middle a bit like a Tardis for sex toys and a big chic metal table in the middle of the coffee shop section. Actually the coffee shop was a bit of a mistake and we soon realised that placing outdoor tables on Tisbury Court at the back of the store didn’t go down well with certain local ‘traders’! The store moved upwards and onwards selling R18 DVDs from 2001 and undergoing refits that saw the end of the Tardis and coffee shop.
It is still by far the busiest gay store in Europe in terms of customer numbers and turnover. It is open till 10pm most evenings and attracts gay (and mixed) customers from all over the world.
Earlier this year it came under new ownership and is now part of the ABS Holdings group of stores. The new owners want it to be true to its roots and loyal to its gay customers, and plan to upgrade and improve it but retaining the very strong Prowler character and brand – gay run for gay men.
To mark its 20th anniversary, June will be ‘Prowler at 20’ month with a host of activities, including models in-store on Saturday 3 June, competitions – take a selfie outside the store windows and post online and you’ll be eligible for a whole load of 20% off offers; and competitions, such as a chance to win £500 of underwear.