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Even sex can't sell in this economy

Brothels feel the pinch in Nevada

Amy, 58, in her room at Donna's Ranch in Wells, Nev., once bought a $32,000 car in cash; now her mortgage saps her pay. Amy, 58, in her room at Donna's Ranch in Wells, Nev., once bought a $32,000 car in cash; now her mortgage saps her pay. (Photo for the Los Angeles Times by George Frey)
By Ashley Powers
Los Angeles Times / November 28, 2008
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WELLS, Nev. - The women at Donna's Ranch are crowded around the kitchen table griping about depleted bank accounts. At this northeastern Nevada bordello, they woo grizzled truckers and weary travelers for a single reason: money.

Lately, the women don't go home with much.

Amy, 58, once bought a $32,000 Toyota Tacoma in cash; now her $1,200 mortgage saps her dwindling pay.

Marisol's daughters think she works at a resort. She struggles to keep up the ruse. It now takes months, not weeks, to bring $5,000 back to California.

"Marisol," one of her regulars tells her, "it costs me in gas what it takes for me to spend a half-hour with you."

Signs of the economic free fall have cropped up in many of Nevada's 25 or so legal brothels.

The Mustang Ranch, for example, has a steady stream of customers, but the number of women vying for work has soared. Even a 74-year-old applied.

This summer, the Shady Lady gave $50 gas cards to those who spent $300.

The Moonlite Bunny Ranch offered extras to customers paying with their economic stimulus checks.

Donna's Ranch, 180 miles west of Salt Lake City near Interstate 80 and Highway 93, has seen its business plummet nearly 20 percent. More than three-quarters of its customers are long-haul truckers, and high fuel and food prices have drained them of "play money," said Donna's Ranch owner Geoff Arnold.

That cuts into pay for his 10-member staff and the "working girls."

The brothel's woes start with the barflies, who are hoarding what little money they've saved. Tonight, two of them slouch in their stools and bemoan the economic slump. The bartender, Gayle Salinas, is pinching pennies, too. She used to take home $50 in tips. Now she might pocket $12. Her pay is linked to how much the prostitutes make - and customers aren't choosing their most expensive offerings.

The women negotiate the price of "parties" and their duration, which the bartender tracks using kitchen timers. Ten to 15 minutes costs at least $100. Customers once regularly paid thousands of dollars for extras listed on a hot-pink "menu" - but these days, few men desire the mirrored fantasy room.

Earlier that night, Marisol had guided a trucker from Utah into the fantasy room. This was his first brothel trip in a year; he used to stop by every few months.

"See how comfortable you can get?" Marisol coos.

He passes on buying an expensive party. Marisol isn't surprised. She had played a fortune-telling card game that afternoon; it showed the future would bring little cash.

About a dozen years ago, Arnold plunked down more than $1 million for Donna's Ranch. He's a certified public accountant in Boise, Idaho, and had combed the books of several brothels; buying one seemed business-savvy. He owns another in Battle Mountain, Nev.

"They're easy to run," said Arnold, president of the state brothel association. "If you keep the girls happy, you're done. If the girls are happy, then the guys are happy. I can't think of any other business as good as a brothel, except for a doctor's office - they're equally profitable."

Billed as the West's oldest continuously operating bordello, Donna's Ranch greets drivers with a sign that depicts a cowboy hat-wearing brunette atop a truck bed.

From 2006 to 2007, the brothel's revenue climbed 7.6 percent, to about $1 million. In 2008, Arnold expects to make about $200,000 less. Closing that gap is tricky: Brothel advertising is legal, but billboards and bus ads risk upsetting neighbors.

Arnold's staff clips coupons to slash the $3,300 monthly grocery bill. He brainstorms other cost-cutting measures. He owns 33 acres in Wells - enough room, by his calculation, for five to 10 cows that could feed his workers.

"That's what we've come to," he said, chuckling at the idea. "Donna's Ranch could be a real ranch."

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