Let’s begin with a story about the birds and the bees. And AA batteries.
Linda Proulx is the owner and president of Love Nest, a chain of retail stores selling a long line of sex and marital aids. A few years ago, Proulx was driving home from work when she heard a strange sound coming from the rear of her vehicle.
Proulx pulled over to the side of the road. She got out of her car and popped the trunk to see if she could determine the source of the noise.
It was probably a good thing Proulx didn’t head straight to her mechanic.
"I had left a few vibrators in the trunk," she says, assuring us they were for business purposes, only. "Don’t ask me how but one of them got switched on and was banging into the others. I guess they were having a party and I wasn’t invited."
With Cupid’s big day just around the corner, Proulx has a message for anybody who wakes up next to his or her sweetheart on Feb. 14 empty-handed: Good luck with that.
"Valentine’s Day isn’t the type of occasion when you can get away with, ‘G’morning, honey, I’ll give you your gift later,’" Proulx advises.
Proulx speaks from experience. This year, her company is celebrating its 25th anniversary — a number that boggles the mind of Proulx, who, despite sharing office space with blow-up dolls, furry handcuffs and a book entitled Tickle his Pickle, still considers herself a "shy farm girl from Neepawa."
"I used to be quite involved in modelling competitions around town," says the 62-year-old grandmother. "And every time the emcee introduced me I’d hear the same thing — ‘That’s Linda from the Love Nest?’ I don’t know if people were expecting leather and chains but that’s not me. Never has been."
In 1982, Proulx was a divorced mother of two, living in Hamilton. She had a great career with Manulife Financial and a comfortable home. But her children missed their cousins and grandparents in Manitoba. So for Christmas that year, Proulx gave her daughter Michele and her son Daryl the same gift: a copy of the lease she signed for a three-bedroom apartment on Beliveau Road, effective January 1983.
After returning to Winnipeg, Proulx landed a position similar to the one she held in Ontario, but at a fraction of her previous salary. She knew she was going to have a tough time making ends meet so she began looking for a part-time job — something she could do in the evening or on weekends.
Proulx remembered going to a Tupperware-style party in Hamilton one time. Only instead of plastic containers and salad kits, the host was selling lingerie and sex toys. Proulx may have considered herself reserved but she also thought she was a born saleswoman. And she needed the dough. So she made a few phone calls and tracked down a supplier in Vancouver — a company called Love Nest.
"The woman I talked to was very excited to hear from somebody in Winnipeg," Proulx says. "She told me, ‘Here’s the deal: you give us x amount of money and we’ll send you inventory every couple of weeks — as much as you need."
"As much as you need" quickly became "everything you’ve got." Almost overnight, Proulx was hosting as many as 20 parties a month. By September 1983, business was so good she had to hire five women to work for her, to keep up with demand.
"It just took off like gangbusters," Proulx says. "Between 1983 and 1987, my team was winning all these sales awards; we were just having a blast."
In late 1987, the owner of Love Nest asked Proulx if she wanted to buy the company. Proulx, who was still working 9 to 5 at her other job, said she didn’t have the time or money to take over the entire operation. But she was interested in acquiring the rights to Manitoba.
Good decision that; a couple of years after Proulx incorporated her own business in 1988, the B.C. wing declared bankruptcy. Proulx’s three Winnipeg stores are now the only Love Nest locations in Canada with ties to the original chain.
Proulx opened her first retail outlet on St. Anne’s Road in 1990, largely because she had run out of places at home to store her stock. Seven years later, she sold franchise rights to a separate party, and a second store sprang up on Main Street. Proulx currently works out of her third location, located at 3737 Portage Ave.
Proulx doesn’t hesitate when she is asked what she attributes her business’s growth to.
"Sue Johanson was the best thing that ever happened to a store like mine," Proulx says, referring to the 82-year-old registered nurse who hosted Sunday Night Sex Show on the Women’s Television Network, from 1996 to 2005. "For a while, I was coming into the store on Monday mornings and people would be asking about products ‘some lady on TV’ talked about the night before. I was like, ‘What lady?’ So I started watching and became a big fan, too — mostly because Sue made people feel stores like mine were an acceptable place to shop."
That said, Proulx admits not everybody is a fan.
"My goal from the start has been to make Love Nest about love and romance; there are seedy stores out there with peephole movie rooms but that’s not us," she says, noting her own taste in films runs more towards Sleepless in Seattle than Debbie Does Dallas.
"The sad thing is if you ever want to move or expand, the landlords in Winnipeg are still very conservative. Before we relocated to Portage Avenue (from Westwood Drive), I ran into a bunch of landlords who let me look at their property then told me, at the 11th hour, ‘Sorry, but I don’t want a store like yours in my mall.’ "
"We’re perceived as being raunchy or dirty but if you come in here on a Friday night, it’s almost all married couples in their 40s and 50s, on a date."
One more thing: about 10 months ago, Proulx had her Kia outfitted with a car-wrap advertising the business. Within hours, everything Proulx used to hate about driving in Winnipeg was old news.
"Whenever I drive that car, everybody is so nice — honking and waving," Proulx says. "A couple of weeks ago I let my daughter borrow the car. As soon as she got home she called to say she couldn’t believe the difference — how she’d been in long lines, waiting to change lanes, and people just let her cut in front of them, no trouble."