Who would know that on the other end, Betty Lamar is standing near racks of sexy dress-up outfits, 6-inch-high-heeled mules, and, in a back room not far away, a 12-inch dildo known as the Conquistador.
Lamar is the Betty behind Betty's Resale and Betty's Amsterdam, two shops on Madison Avenue near Overton Square. In 1995, she opened the Resale store and, whereas once she only stocked used clothing, she later branched out into selling new shoes, club wear, and most recently, at Amsterdam, sex toys.
Sitting on a display at her new location one afternoon, Lamar is at ease, joking with customers, answering the phone, and wearing an outfit that consists of a sweatshirt, baseball cap, and a pair of black leather pants.
When a woman in a low-cut blouse comes into the store to replace a pair of fake eye lashes, she and Lamar talk about a sparkling cobweb of a dress that she's been lusting over. The customer says she'd accessorize it with pasties and a little something "down there."
"Ooh, girl, that would be on," Lamar says. "Yeah, that would be sharp."
When the woman leaves, Lamar says, "I've known her since before she got those breasts." She waits to see if anyone's shocked: The woman wasn't always a woman.
This is Lamar -- fun-loving, frank, and frankly sexual. Mostly, though, she seems a bundle of pure energy, punctuated by giggles and laughter. She's a slender, single 45 -- but looks half her age -- who has an ever- present smile. She calls herself, alternately, a diva, a fighter, and an exotic bird.
"I love to trip around at home in the 6-inch mules," Lamar says. "I won't say what some people call them -- come 'blank' me shoes -- but I like to walk around in the mules and some cute little thing."
"Every now and then I go out and everybody dresses up diva- style. I might just put on my leather pants and corset." As she talks she mimes the shape of the clothes as if she were wearing them and pouts a little. "I like that Gunsmoke look, you know, Miss Kitty, where the girls wore the corsets and the big skirts and stuff. They could lift them up and walk around in thigh-highs and it was so sexy."
Lamar, who has lived in Memphis for much of her life, acts as if she could just play all day. But as much as she jokes around, her business here is very important to her.
"Even growing up, I knew she was very ambitious," says Lamar's sister Linda Spann. "She wanted to conquer the world. In the time we grew up, and the size of our family, we didn't have a lot. Most girls wanted to get a boyfriend and have kids, but that was never her goal."
Feeding the Need
In 1986, Lamar had just quit her job and the rent was due. To make ends meet, she decided she would have to sell some of her belongings.
"I started from my closet. I invited my friends -- they had always liked my style in clothing -- and they would come over and I would sell my clothes," says Lamar.
She then started buying clothes especially for resale. "My house became completely engulfed with clothing to the point where my friends were bringing their friends."
She had never worked in retail before, but because she didn't want so many people coming into her home, she decided to rent a booth in a Midtown flea market. Later she would get space in Southaven, Mississippi, and in 1995, she opened Betty's Resale in the current Amsterdam location on Madison Avenue.
At some point, drag queens started frequenting her business and she became "Betty's -- where the divas shop," something she says she owes to a national lingerie chain.
"Frederick's of Hollywood got wind that I had heels. They had discontinued heels in their store -- you could still order them -- but there were so many women, men, whatever, looking for heels," says Lamar. Frederick's called her store and asked for a stack of her business cards. Then, any time a customer needed heels immediately, the lingerie retailer would send them to Betty's.
"They [customers] would tell me what they wanted so I started getting high heels and thigh-high boots and stuff, and they said, 'Betty, why don't you get clothes for us? Now that you have the shoes, we can come in and get our clothes and lingerie and all that stuff here, too.'"
"So I said, Okay, cool, and I started shopping in markets, getting on planes, and finding some unique things," says Lamar. "It went from one thing to another."
Lamar says that Betty's also became where the divas shop because she's always been very gay-friendly. Many retailers that carry formal dresses have policies against letting men try on merchandise or returning anything they buy for themselves.
"The word spread that you can go to this store, Betty's, and she's really cool," says Lamar. "She'll actually let you try on her clothes. The word spread: Go to Betty's."
Lamar takes that same attitude toward all her customers, and it's what she credits her success to. Whatever her customers want, whatever they need, she'll do her best to get it for them.
"They ask, 'Do you have neon-colored wigs?' 'Well, no, but I can get them.' And then I get on the phone, get on the plane, and I find some.
"I ask, Is there a need for it out there. If they say, 'Yeah, Betty, a lot of people are talking about it.' Okay, so then I get some."
Memphis' Red Light District
Lamar, watching from the back of the store, is dolled up with ringlets in her hair, a short skirt, and, of course, high heels. Earlier in the day, a few drag queens were trying on heels and Lamar decided to put on a pair as well. "I told them, 'You can't beat me, I'm a real girl.'"
She calls herself an Amsterdammer; she visits the European city twice a year and would visit more often if she could because, she says simply, she feels free there. It was after a trip last summer that she decided to create her own Amsterdam.
"I told my friend, I'm going to do this sex shop. But I don't want it to be like the others; I want to create an ambience. I put chandeliers in there and gave it a soft touch to make people feel like, it's okay, it's clean, instead of a stereotypical adult store located on the side of the highway." To give the store a personal touch, she greets her customers at the door and she makes sure to answer any questions people have about her items. Amsterdam also has two entrances: an ornate one facing Madison Avenue and a back door for anyone who doesn't want to be seen going in.
"I don't like sleaze," she says. "When I came up with Amsterdam, I wanted to take the sleaze out of the business."
She also wanted to make women feel comfortable.
"When women come in and women are running it [the store], they feel better. They still feel a little uncomfortable, but once you mellow them out a little bit, they're okay."
Of course, a sex shop in Overton Square didn't go over quietly.
During her grand opening party last September, which included exotic dancers eating fire, the power mysteriously went out around 10 p.m. As the revelers left, Lamar went across the street to wait. She wanted to make sure her store would be okay. Shortly after everyone was gone, though, the power came back on.
But Lamar's problems didn't stop there. Another nearby business owner started a petition to get her removed. The words "nigger" and "whore" were written on her front window in red lipstick.
Lamar shut down the store after city code enforcement came by and told her that she was not zoned for sex toys and that she would be issued a $50 citation every day she continued to sell them.
"We didn't feel that [selling the sex toys] was illegal," says Lamar's lawyer, Randall Songstad. "There were no churches or schools around. We went to the city and had them upgrade our license." But because of harassment and what Lamar calls negativity surrounding the location, she decided to move her operation a block west, to the Gilmore building.
"But then the Gilmore said they'd have to add an addendum to her lease and that she couldn't sell the sex toys or the adult entertainment," says Songstad. "It was like, Now what am I going to do?"
Near bankruptcy, Lamar and Songstad decided the best thing for her to do was move Amsterdam back to Overton Square. The space was still set up for Amsterdam, Lamar had the zoning from the city, and Songstad sent cease and desist letters to parties Lamar felt had been harassing her.
"I'm a fighter," says the former Army recruit, "but at some point, I don't want to fight. I have responsibilities, things I care about that I don't want to lose because I'm fighting you."
For Lamar, though, the conflict wasn't about sex or sex toys or drag queens and girls dancing in her windows, but another issue altogether: after-hours parking.
"You know how people will try to make something out of another thing? They made it about the girls in the window."
"I've always been a good neighbor. I don't bother anybody. I'm still Betty."
For now, though, the conflict with her neighbors appears to be resolved. Amsterdam is open again and selling sex toys. Lamar threw herself a Second Chance Party Saturday, March 10th; the electricity stayed on and everybody seemed to have a good time.
People perused the sex toys, sat on couches and chatted, and watched the windows. The models, wearing beaded formal dresses, white sheer nighties, and slinky cocktail dresses, played to the crowd, some of them lounging on chaises while others swung from poles and gyrated like kitchen appliances.
Outside, cars slowed to a halt on the street and two clean-cut guys walking together on the sidewalk tripped into one another, obviously captivated by the dancers.
"Adults need toys, too. After awhile we can't play with Barbie dolls anymore," Lamar says.
And as always, the diva is looking after her customers. "The toys are very much a part of Amsterdam. I saw a need for that in Midtown; my customers expressed that need."
Doing It For Yourself
|After a controversial opening night, Betty says shell no longer have dancers in her store windows.|
After moving Amsterdam back into Overton Square, Lamar decided to make the Gilmore location her high-end store, housing sexy party dresses, thongs, and a female police officer's "uniform" that even a cop would get cited for wearing. At the Gilmore, she would sell her used items, which she says makes it better all around.
"Sometimes it causes problems to have your old and your new merchandise together," she explains. "Like when things go on sale."
But because the original plan was to house both Amsterdam and Resale in the Gilmore, she suddenly found herself with empty space in both locations. So the woman who doesn't like shopping for herself saw the extra room in the Gilmore as an opportunity for her to start carrying antiques.
"I love furniture. I was taught a long time ago that you will basically be successful in something that you like. Because if you don't like it, you're not going to put everything into it," Lamar says.
As a single black woman running a business, Lamar credits her family and friends with helping her make it.
"I'm very fortunate because I have family support," she says. "They come out and help if I need them."
Which sometimes she does. Lamar does a lot of work at her stores herself -- not just selling and stocking but cleaning out old storage closets and hanging ceiling tile. And her support system is always there to lend a hand. After she separated her new and used items, Lamar sent some of her drag queen friends into the Gilmore to do some decorating, an idea she says worked out great.
"It looks so good now."
Lamar also tries to return the favor. Spann started working with Lamar while she was between jobs. Spann's son worked for Lamar when he needed extra money to fix his car.
"She put my niece through school," says Spann. "My niece was working with her and Betty told her she needed to do something with her life." The niece now works as a surgery technician at Methodist Hospital but sometimes still helps Lamar out on the weekends.
But in its own way, Lamar says that Betty's lives on because of women.
"I'm smart enough to know that men like women. Women will always be a major commodity in this world. Even gay men like women, not in the same way, but they still like to emulate women."
She jokes that even when the cops were making regular visits to Amsterdam, it wasn't to bother her. It was to see the girls.
But if women are the commodity, they are also the consumers. Most of the clothes, the accessories, and the other "accessories" are geared toward women.
"I always knew that women would be a big factor in my success in life. I'm so happy that I'm a woman who actually likes women. I feel as long as I have women as a part of my business, somehow, that I'm going to do well."
Currently Lamar is planning on using the empty space in Amsterdam as a late-night coffee bar, a place where people can lounge after they've been out clubbing. After her Second Chance Party, she decided not to have models dancing in the windows, opting for mannequins to convey the idea of Amsterdam instead.
"I don't want to misrepresent Amsterdam," she says. "I don't want to misrepresent Betty." She felt that the dancers couldn't see her vision of what Amsterdam was, where the girls sit in the windows and are beautiful, but not lewd.
"I don't want it to look sleazy."
But that isn't stopping her from moving forward. Lamar is franchising Amsterdam fun parties, her own special variation of the Tupperware party theme.
And maybe there will even be a higher office in her future. "I need to be mayor of Memphis. Betty Lamar, mayor."
Her sister says Lamar goes whichever way the wind blows, but Lamar just laughs at that.
"When you don't have a love life or any babies, you don't have anything to do but plan," she says.
"I'm trying to find something that not everybody else is doing. I don't want to be everybody else."
You can e-mail Mary Cashiola at firstname.lastname@example.org.