Steve Abouna and Kilo Hassan opened Bongz & Thongz on September 10, after they’d taken some hazing from the city. The city’s problem was with the thongs rather than the bongs–the idea of a sex toy shop right around the corner from what used to be Ann Arbor’s small but infamous red light district in the 1970s and 1980s had the city frantically dusting off Article 5:50: “Regulations concerning adult entertainment businesses.” Right before Art Fair, as Abouna and Hassan were about to get their occupancy permit, the city shut down their renovation of the former Liberty Video.

Abouna says he previously had been told informally by city planner Chris Cheng that everything was smooth sailing. He and Cheng had already discussed Article 5:50’s “20 percent rule,” which held that less than 20 percent of his merchandise could involve “simulated human genitals” or be “designed for sexual stimulation,” and Abouna said he’d carefully written his application for an occupancy permit with that in mind.

Then, Abouna says, he voluntarily showed Cheng an invoice for all his inventory, and Cheng told him he couldn’t sell any sex toys or lingerie. To get his store open, he agreed to leave his adult toys and lingerie boxed up in the basement, which was supposed to be the “thongz” part of the store and currently isn’t open to the public. Upstairs he sells pipes and other smoking paraphernalia, incense, posters, and a couple of sex aids–nothing you don’t see on TV commercials about “the big moment,” though the brands are more obscure.

City planner Cheng pleasantly agrees with Abouna’s sequence of events but says Abouna himself is responsible for the store’s limited focus. “We never said he couldn’t sell the 20 percent. [But] when he applied for his occupancy permit he described his inventory,” and it didn’t mention anything sexually explicit. When Cheng saw the invoice, it was clear that what Abouna had ordered wasn’t what he’d described, and Cheng decided to halt the renovation until Abouna agreed to limit the merchandise to his original proposal.

Abouna, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs and has relatives in small businesses all over Ann Arbor (whom he doesn’t want to name, afraid that they’ll catch some of his flak), also has a smoke shop in Roseville. Hassan owns the BP gas station on the corner of Packard and Platt.

So just what is in those boxes downstairs? “Oh, you know,” Abouna says breezily, “the usual. Genitalia, dongs, vibrators, the pockets, the dolls … There’s a big demand for all of these things.” The partners now plan to meet that demand through online, rather than retail, sales. But warming to the topic of the Internet, Abouna says: “Hey, they’re afraid this will be a red-light district? The Internet itself is a red-light district. And the city doesn’t want me to sell anything shaped like a genital? Really that’s the law? Are they gonna close down Kroger? You ever been in the vegetable and the fruit aisle?”

Abouna and Hassan, it should be noted, have only a one-year lease, and unless their business becomes instantly profitable, they will be out of the city’s hair soon enough. But the city’s concerns might not be totally unfounded. During a ten- or fifteen-minute visit at midday, Abouna had two groups of potential customers, and they were not the squeaky clean monogamous suburban couples who inhabit the tasteful sex commercials of television. The first group consisted of a portly middle-aged man wearing an expensive suit and escorting two giggling young women in tight jeans and very high heels. To a jaded reporter, it looked like a lawyer and two hookers. “Well, it is what it is,” shrugs Abouna, not really caring. The next threesome was a little harder to peg–the two men and a woman all appeared to be thirty-something professionals. But like the first group, they immediately scuttled away as soon as they saw an interview in progress.

“I’m not trying to bring back crack heads and hookers,” Abouna laughed. “I’m just trying to have a little fun.”

Bongz & Thongz, 119 E. Liberty. 585-5613. Mon.-Wed. noon-9 p.m., Thurs. & Sat. noon-midnight, Sun. noon-7 p.m.