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Theodoor grabs a walnut from a bowl by the cashier and cracks it open with his bare hands. When he opens his grip, he shrieks with joy, as if pulling a rabbit out of a hat and then we look at his open palm: amidst the shatters of the broken nut lies a plain-white condom. He is a magician who lost the boundary dividing sex and pranks.

"It's bullshit, a joke, and our customers know this condom doesn't work," he adds, "but fun is part of being safe."

The man is 57, wearing dark brown wide-framed glasses and a blue suit, and now bustles round the counter to reveal more novelties of his Amsterdam-based store. The latest female condom, bio-lubricant, a classic glow-in-the-dark - "just place it under the light before putting it on," he says, just before dropping another one in my hand-, the next an Obama/Romney special edition; as he moves around the shop it seems to me that the catalogue knows no end. This is contraceptive paradise.

big_condom
Photo: Diego Arguedas Ortiz
A large-scale condom balloon hangs right in the centre of the shop

The shop's walls are painted in an extravagant palette, glass jars with a variety of rubbers are lined up in a corner, and a huge rainbow condom-lamp hangs above my head. The Condomerie, the first specialist condom shop in the world, looks more like a candy shop for adults than your usual pharmacy. "Yes, we like colour and light, but the candy shop appearance was not planned," Theodoor van Boven confesses, and as he goes on I can't help feeling that Willy Wonka must have looked like him.

The origins of The condomerie

On April 10, 1987, a group of friends are dining in a gypsy restaurant in the Jordaan district, Amsterdam, and fervidly debating how society has reacted to AIDS. Wine bottles come and go as they talk about the lack of policies and initiatives around the disease. The origins of the idea are blurry now, but at some point in the conversation it was born: "What if we create a space that raises awareness and provides easy access to condoms for everyone?"

Marijke Vilijn, Ricky Jansen, and Theodoor van Boven woke up the day after with the idea still lurking in their minds. The gang started moving: preparations began ten days later and on May 1st , barely three weeks after the birth of the idea, the Condomerie was ready to get started at Warmoestraat 141, where it stills stands a few blocks away from the Red Light district.

"So many people are not comfortable using protection and they don't realise the issue is not their penis or vagina: it's the condom."

Over the first three years, it only opened in the afternoon and evening on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and it took the owners three years to be able to quit their jobs and make a living out of it. Now the Condomerie opens every day of the week and employs 28 people, and sell everything from vibrator rings to sex-themed postcards.

One of these postcards shows a photo of Marijke, fully dressed in a traditional Dutch outfit, standing in front of the recently opened shop. Above her head is the Condomerie sign, almost the same as today's. Twenty-five years of world notoriety haven't lessened the small shop feeling of the picture.

THE FIRST "CONDOMOLOGIST" in the world 

As a malacologist deals with mollusks and posologists are medics concerned with dosage, whenever Theodoor van Boven hands out his business card it reads condomologist. The title must not be taken lightly. The body of knowledge assembled by the staff of The Condomerie is one of its strengths: the shop does not only sell condoms, it's their temple.

Browsing their stock file of over 200 different types takes some time. Is you penis 10, 13, 18 or 22 cm long? Oh, in between? No problem. How about the diameter? Do you have trouble dealing with latex? Do you feel a solid inclination towards cherry flavour? He opens the intricate binder of their catalogue and craftily passes the foils. "So many people are not comfortable using protection and they don't realise the issue is not their penis or vagina: it's the condom." Theodoor adds with dreamy eyes, "That's what we do here; we devote our lives to finding the right condom for you."

theo_condomerie
Photo: Diego Arguedas Ortiz
Theodoor van Boven, the first condomologist in the world

The Condomerie's obsession with pairing penises and condoms in perfect match-ups led them to create a special tool in their website in which men can provide the length and diameter of their manhood to find the ideal rubber. The shop even offers "trial packs" with several varieties of condom, so the user can try them out and decide which one suits him better. How do they know which condoms work and which don't? The shop works along with ISO-TC 157, an international certification organisation dealing with non-systemic contraceptives and STI barrier prophylactics, of which van Boven is a member.

"The condoms are yellow, magenta, dotted, with a tiger face, skinny, or outrageously long; there is a fairground-style mix of safety and pleasure with delightful results."

The Condomerie is known not only for condom expertise, but also of its commitment to sexual health. Several times a week the shop becomes a workshop for sex education and they even manage to provide affordable condoms to sex workers all over Amsterdam. "I have always believed that even if you feel you don't have the time, you should do something to pay back society," explains Theodoor.

Outside, there's a young couple giggling at the front window, where the funkiest condoms hang, half-full of water, from a white clothesline. Looked at from the street, the showcase could be confused with the work of a nymphomaniac clown. The condoms are yellow, magenta, dotted, with a tiger face, skinny, or outrageously long; there is a fairground-style mix of safety and pleasure with delightful results.

condomerie_catalogue
Photo: Diego Arguedas Ortiz
A catalogue shows different condom sizes and colours available

"We are from Tahiti," they say, "just in town for a couple of days." Although they are shivering a little in the cold, the smile never drops from their faces. “We like the idea of the shop; this could be pretty much anywhere," says the girl, Vaiari.

The man doesn't talk much but timidly confesses that English is not his strength, and he doesn't even want to give his name; his delight is all due to the condom burlesque in the window. However, by the end of the conversation, just before I say good-bye, he turns his face half-way from the display case. "Yeah, this is fun," he giggles again and as they walk away I can almost hear Theodoor's heart nearly skipping a beat.

(Teaser image: front window of the Condomerie, by Diego Arguedas Ortiz)

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