Trip to the Spy Store: Semi-Pervy Espionage Spot With African Roots

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Photo by Angelica Leicht
The spy store, all about sex and secrets.
The spy store doesn't look like much. It's a tiny litttle storefront, much longer than it is wide, wedged into a bend on Westheimer Road. We'd seen it a million times over the years without ever really registering that it was there. The sign in the window always indicated the store was open, the store itself always looked dark and closed, and we'd never once caught anyone walking in or out of the place.

We were intrigued in an absent-minded way, and decided to go see what the place was all about. Turns out it's all about sex and secrets.

The door swung open and one of the store's private investigators looked up from one of the desks parked in the corner of the space as far from the buzzing fluorescent lights as one could get. He wasn't wearing a trench coat and a fedora like Bogie in The Maltese Falcon. He wasn't even wearing a striped suit. A woman with long black hair was sitting in a metal chair pulled alongside the desk. She might have been pretty, but it was hard to tell because she'd been crying. She went silent when we walked in and didn't say an audible word from then on.

We introduced ourselves and got the okay to peruse the store. We darted to the back of the place and started looking over tracking devices and cameras shaped like pens. If you learn nothing else from a whiskey-soaked detective novel, the one thing you're sure to soak up is to not stick your nose where it doesn't belong, unless you're the main character.

We were so careful not to stare, we almost smacked into a blank-faced dummy propped up at the back of the store. In today's world of social media and oversharing, it's easy to think there are no secrets left. It's too hard to hide where you are, who you're with, what you're doing. But the spy store is proof that's a foolish thought. There were fake soda bottles and hollow books, there were microphones and cameras that could be hidden in anything, watches with tracking devices and instruction books on how to find out if your significant other is cheating. The spy store has it all, and it's proof that, despite the NSA, privacy isn't dead. After all, if it were, you wouldn't need so many ways to invade it.

Photo by Angelica Leicht
While we were studying the cap on the dummy's head, the woman left without making a sound. The investigator leaned back in his chair and asked a few questions (why we were there, what we were after, the usual). We then asked a few of our own. The owner, Sidney May, was out of the country, off in Nigeria, but he would get us in touch with him, the investigator said. Another woman slid through the door, saw us, stopped and silently waited. We took our cue and made for the exit. "That place smells like tears and broken dreams," a friend muttered as we walked out the door.

May called later and filled us in on his store. Spy Emporium (slogan: "The shop that creates spies") was opened in 1990 by Leo May, an African immigrant. He got interested in spy technology while he was studying electrical engineering, and then he ditched the moving company he had created and started Spy Emporium. Leo went back to Africa, and his son Sidney took over the store in 2009.

"People say this is a great store for criminals, but we don't cater to that," May told us in an official-sounding voice. Criminals could have a great time with some of this stuff, of course, but the main clients are the same as the ones who used to creep through the doors in all those Raymond Chandler stories, besides the criminals -- husbands suspicious of wives, wives tracking husbands, significant others who want to know what the one they're with is up to. "Sometimes the husband will come in and buy a bunch of stuff and then the wife will come in, too," Sidney said. "They'll both pay cash and spy on each other."

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