Naked Before God

A church offers six figures for a strip club.

Sipping cranberry juice and Malibu at 4:30 in the afternoon, Mama and Peaches slump on purple suede chairs at Just Teazin, a strip club in Painesville. They look worn out, ready to replace their six-inch heels with a pair of fuzzy slippers.

The two glance sullenly around the dark, cavernous bar. It's mostly empty, save for a couple of well-mannered men in baseball caps, who sit sipping bottles of Miller Lite in the corner.

"Who wants a dance?" Peaches asks, though her dejected tone makes it seem as if she doesn't really want to give one.

There's a reason for the women's gloom. They're worried about their jobs.

Recently, a local church offered to purchase the bar for a six-figure sum. Just Teazin is the only strip club in the Painesville area, and neither of the Rubenesque dancers sees herself fitting in at Christie's Cabaret.

"I have an idea: Let's go picket the churches Thursday afternoon," says Karen, the snarky blond bartender. "We'll march around with signs. We'll be like, 'Hell no, we won't go."

Mama smiles slightly, then dances her fingers along the bar as if she were playing a pipe organ.

"Seriously, could you imagine this place as a church?" she asks.

Karen laughs. "Well, I know where the altar would be," she says, looking at the lighted stage in the center of the room, where a blond stripper wraps her legs around the fireman's pole and tosses her head. Noticing her audience, she slowly unclasps the hook of her halter top.

Bill Martin, owner of Just Teazin, didn't know what to expect when he agreed to meet with church officials at a local restaurant a few weeks ago. He certainly never expected a buyout offer. (He refuses to provide the exact figure, saying only that it's under $300,000, and won't name the church.)

Martin told the group he'd think it over. Although the pitch had startled him, it wasn't an entirely new idea.

Nine years ago, the Union Congregational Church, to much applause, bought out his first bar, the Get Away Café. Church leaders gutted the bar and turned it into a youth ministry. It has since been converted to a homeless shelter.

"I think a church should look to eradicate sin in the community," says Union Congregational's Reverend Roderick Coffee. "It's not enough to say to a congregation, 'Don't go there.' If a church has financial stability, they need to act on their statements. That's what's called progressive evangelism."

Martin eventually opened another bar on Mentor Avenue, just down the street from the Get Away. At first, he tried a country-western theme, but no one came. Then he tried hip-hop. Still no customers. Finally, he reopened the space as a strip club. "Guess what?" he says. "People came."

But not everyone was happy about it. In 1998, Painesville Township officials tried to shutter the club, arguing that it violated newly adopted zoning regulations. After Martin challenged the ordinance, a judge ruled in Martin's favor, determining that the bar should have been grandfathered in.

"The First Amendment overrode us," moans Jim Falvey, chair of the Painesville City Council. "It was a slam dunk. The judge told us if we wanted to pursue it, we would probably be wasting our time."

It wasn't the end of the debate -- or of the township's strategizing. When Martin moved the bar to its current location next to a hardware store on Ridge Road, the township attempted to deny him a liquor license. But the Ohio Liquor Control Commission told the township that there weren't enough complaints against Martin's club to prohibit the license transfer.

"I'm disappointed, naturally," Angela A. Cicconetti, a township trustee, told a local newspaper at the time. "I don't think there's legally anything we can do to stop him."

That was the end of the discussion, though not of the grumbling.

"Everyone I talk to who lives in Painesville does not want it there," Falvey mutters. "I don't want it there."

But after the last ruling, the township believed it would have to grudgingly accept the club, as it would an embarrassing relative at the family reunion.

Then came the offer from the church.

"I'm glad," says Falvey. "A church is a much more palatable option."

Yet for Martin, the decision was hardly preordained. Last week, he sipped water and weighed his options at the Blue Martini, a mile down the road from Just Teazin.

On one hand, the cash was hard to pass up. It would be enough to take a long vacation. And he appreciated that the church was putting its money where its mouth was.

"I respect them more than the township, who tried every backdoor method they could come up with to shut us down," he said.

But he also wanted to remain faithful to employees like Mama and Peaches, who would be out of work if he sold out.

"My business is kind of like my family," he said. "If I closed it, I wouldn't know what I'd tell my girls."

He sighed, sat back in his chair, and gazed toward the ceiling, as if waiting for inspiration from a higher power.

By Monday, he had arrived at his decision: The club would remain open. Whether it's for the best, only God knows.