In front of an open door down 18th Street in the Castro, a sandwich sign with a drawing of a leatherman reads “we buy gay stuff.” Instead of a porn shop or sex store, inside the red door and up a flight of stairs, stands a space paying tribute to queer history — this is Auto Erotica.
For just over 25 years, Patrick Bätt has owned and operated the shop, a living amalgam of queer memorabilia and history. Inside visitors can find copies of out of print magazines, posters and flyers from events during the early gay rights movements and even museum-esque displays.
“It’s part museum and part store. That’s what people describe it as when they come in here,” Bätt said. He said that when he initially opened, he had not intended for Auto Erotica to be what it is now.
“It was one of those things that I wish I could say I planned it, but I didn’t,” said Bätt. “It just was organic, it came organically.”
Prior to opening Auto Erotica, Bätt owned and operated Mercury Mail Order, a magazine-catalogue for fetish gear, lube and sex toys. He was based out of a building across the street from where Auto Erotica is now.
Initially, Mercury Mail Order was meant to be a storefront for the catalogue where people could go instead of waiting for it in the mail.
The space was previously the headquarters of the infamous Drummer magazine, a gay publication known for its guides and commentary on BDSM, leather and kink. When Bätt saw the owner moving things in, he knew he had to act.
Bätt said he called the owner and offered to sublet the space when the time came. Six months later, the owner of Drummer called Bätt and said he was ready to sublet the space. Since then, Bätt has operated out of the space.
“I decided to open Auto Erotica as a glorified [Mercury Mail Order] bigger space,” Bätt said. “Lube, condoms, dildos, leather, cock rings, a little bit of everything.”
Shortly after he started, Bätt said other similar places opened up. However, they are no longer in operation.
Because San Francisco can only have so many dildo stores, Bätt said, he needed to find something else that set him apart.
“I started out with used magazines, and then morphed into the vintage stuff from there. And now I’ve created this little niche,” he said.
The little niche has now become a staple in the Castro and a place for people with interests in vintage, rare queer art, porn and memorabilia to trade.
Baruch Porras Hernandez, a San Francisco-based writer and artist said that although he has never been to Auto Erotica, he knows how important the space is for the community. Although he has never been to the space, he has been told about it by his friends and other artists in the community. Hernandez said he even recommends visitors stop in to take a look while they are in the city.
“It’s more of a historical archive, and that is very important because so much of our queerness was forbidden and illegal in the past,” Hernandez said. “A lot of times porn and erotic art was the only way we could be ourselves.”
The rarity of what the space offers is due in part to the AIDS epidemic. The AIDS crisis resulted in the deaths of 324,029 men and women between 1987 and 1998, creating a ‘Gay generation gap’ in the history — a gap that Auto Erotica works to fill and is part of the reason people find it appealing.
Bradley Roberge, who runs the Auto Erotica Instagram page, started out as just a customer. He said that he started going into the space during the 2020 lockdown as a way to get out of his house. Roberge said the space offered him an escape and an opportunity to dive into what he called a “rabbit hole” of gay history that may have otherwise been lost.
“There really is nowhere else like it, nowhere else that I know [that] collects and sells and redistributes or displays this ephemera. So it’s special for that reason,” he said.
But unique or not, Auto Erotica was in trouble. Because of the lockdown, Bätt said that he wasn’t selling as much, and bills began to pile up.
“I didn’t know if I was going to survive, frankly,” Bätt said. “It hadn’t been doing well before the closure. I was closed for three and a half months, no income for three and a half months.”
The combination of bills along with the hardships from the pandemic, it seemed to Bätt that the space might shut its doors. And then came Roberge.
Roberge suggested that they start a GoFundMe to get Auto Erotica back in the green. Bätt initially rejected the idea because, to him, it equated to standing on a corner asking for change. Eventually he relented, and in January, Roberge set up the campaign with a modest goal of $16,000. By April, they had raised just over that amount.
“I think it was good for him in a lot of ways not only to reach the goal on the GoFundMe, but I think it helped him realize that what he had and what he was doing was special and that people appreciated it,” Roberge said.
Aside from saving the business, the GoFundMe also brought Auto Erotica to the attention of new and younger people in the community.
“They’re into the concept of history, saving queer history, as they call it…and the idea was, it was important to keep this alive to a lot of people. So that’s what I learned about it,” Batt said.
As Auto Erotica embarks on another year of business selling rare and vintage gay art, porn and memorabilia, it continues to house and archive gay history. On 18th Street, through the red door in a shop with the neon dick in the window, queer history lives.