Naughty or nice?
Corning’s Lonesome Dove gift shop owner gets flak for displaying lingerie in public
In most cities, a novelty shop owned and run by an ex-welfare mom who decided to display some red lingerie outside her storefront wouldn’t make local headlines. But then, Corning isn’t like most cities.
A couple of weeks ago, as business owners geared their merchandise to the throngs of men looking for appropriate Valentine’s Day gifts, the Lonesome Dove gift shop in Corning set up a mannequin outside wearing a red silky nightgown, modest by modern standards.
Jeannette Turner, owner of the little corner store on Solano Street, has since been ordered by the City Council to remove the taboo piece of clothing, as well as the other T-shirts and such that she had hanging from the awning of her building.
The reason? The council members say she is encroaching on a public right of way. Turner thinks, however, that it may have been the nightie that ticked off civic leaders, not its location.
If the name Jeannette Turner rings a bell, that’s because it has appeared in these pages numerous times before. She’s the woman with the dubious distinction of being the only welfare mom in the state convicted of perjury for allegedly falsifying her employment history on a welfare application—even though, subsequently, she was found eligible for the aid and received more than $8,000 in back payments. She served 22 months in prison before being reunited, on Thanksgiving Day 1999, with two of her four children, her 6-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, who’d been in foster care for that time.
Her supporters, including attorneys with Legal Services of Northern California, charged that the problems with her application should have been handled administratively and that breaking up a family, sending the mother to prison and the kids to foster care at great expense, was inappropriate. Tehama County, they charged, was just trying to make an example of her.
After her release she moved to Red Bluff and opened up her novelty shop in Corning. She’s been working hard to get back on her feet and take care of her two youngest children (the others are adults), and she frets that this latest conflict is a means to dig up old resentment.
“They just see a woman who tried to get something for nothing and ended up getting a lot of money,” Turner said. “They don’t think about the time I spent in the prison or away from my kids and then making a bounce-back. I’m manic-depressive now and have post-traumatic-stress disorder and all of that, but I’m still making a comeback. I’m not going to let something like that get me down. I’m going to go on; they’re not going to bring me down like they want to.”
Her store looks like most novelty and gift shops, though it sells pipes and other gear typical of a head shop. Racks of humorous greeting cards line the wall, there are a few stray Halloween costumes left over from last season, and gag gifts are a major theme. The infamous red lingerie is the only nightwear sold there, save a few garments behind a glass countertop.
Behind a curtained door with a sign limiting passage to those 18 and over is the real key to Turner’s business success: a variety of sex-themed movies, toys, games, magazines and other such items, as well as smoking paraphernalia, that locals won’t find anywhere else in Corning. Turner readily admits that the “fun room,” as she calls it, yields most of her business and always leaves people laughing.
Customers find the Lonesome Dove primarily by word of mouth, Turner said, because she does not yet have the money to advertise. She has high hopes of experimenting with various types of new inventory, including a cowboy-and-country line of gifts that might suit the small-town perspective a little better.
Ironically enough, Turner admitted that she’s had an increase in consumers since the City Council urged her to take down her outside displays.
Turner readily took down the item at the council’s request but sees no reason why she should have. In a meeting of the Hometown Revitalization Committee and the City of Corning Planning Commission on Feb. 19, business owners were educated by a local authority on how to spruce up the outside of a business so as to draw in customers. Effective signage, said speaker Roger Klemm of the Synthesis Design Group, is the key to maximizing a company’s efficiency. This precisely is what Turner believes she is doing by hanging her merchandise from the awning outside.
“Like the gentleman at the meeting said, you have to display your stuff in the window,” Turner said. “You have to display what you have. OK, I don’t put anything risqué in the windows. … So I don’t think I have really displayed anything to offend anybody.”
It just so happens that Turner’s shop is kitty-corner from Corning’s City Hall, perhaps explaining why she alone is at fault when, as she eagerly emphasized, there are a few other businesses on her block that have displays and sandwich boards on the sidewalk.
On the other hand, City Attorney Michael Fitzpatrick said that Turner’s case is unusual because of the layout of property lines in Corning’s downtown business area. The private property plots differ greatly between blocks, and Turner has the unfortunate problem that her store’s private property line ends at the front window, thus leaving the entire sidewalk marked as public right of way. Other businesses may have come out ahead, having a good few feet of outside space before the end of the property line.
Fitzpatrick says that a sign ordinance might help in the prescription and specifics of outdoor advertisements. There is currently no such ordinance in Corning, but the council is working on creating one. He said that council members are not seeking to regulate the design and creativity of signs per se, but rather are looking at the appropriate location on the building from which they can be hung or posted.
Mayor Gary Strack mirrors Fitzpatrick’s sentiments on the issue, saying that the sign ordinance, which will most likely be passed within the next three weeks, will not be too dictatorial.
And while Strack verified that there have been people who were offended by Turner’s merchandise, he said that she has done nothing wrong in terms of trying to build a profitable business. Window displays are not causing the controversy, but the second a display moves outside the city has the right to have it taken down.
“The only way the city is looking at it, we’re just looking at anything in that area, whether it’s a T-shirt or what. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to see lingerie, but we don’t have an ordinance that says you can’t [sell] that,” Strack said.
Strack also mentioned that he had no knowledge of Turner before this instance, including her criminal convictions. He added that he has nothing against her personally.
Turner sees things differently, believing that she’s perhaps being used again as an example. Still, as the city’s decisions are waiting to be made, she is not letting the controversy get her down. "You have to have a sense of humor. You can’t get by in life without a sense of humor and smile," she said. "They can talk all they want, but I just don’t like the negative attitude. I don’t like having anybody as an enemy."