CHAPEL HILL -- Internationalist Books manager Nick Shepard knows that University Massage, the Franklin Street parlor on the other side of his store's wall, has a reputation for offering more than just a massage.
"It's sort of seen as like the open secret of West Franklin Street," Shepard, 23, said Friday.
"I've never been. I don't know what goes on. I don't want to speculate," he said. "All I know is we've been here for years, and we've never had any problem with them."
That's the rub for many as Chapel Hill police continue a months-long investigation into whether rumored sex acts at the 30-plus-year-old business are true. Many have suspicions, but as long as the business doesn't cause trouble, who cares what goes on behind closed doors?
"They're not bothering anybody," said Amanda Ashley, 40, of Carrboro, taking a smoke break across the street from University Massage on Friday afternoon. "If you don't want it, don't go there."
Efforts to reach University Massage owner William Johnson have been unsuccessful.
Michael Donaldson, general manager of The Franklin Hotel less than half a block away, disagrees that the business doesn't bother anyone.
"I've seen it more times than I have fingers and toes, young ladies sitting on the back stoop soliciting -- for massages, I assume," he said.
The building's "slum-like appearance" is bad for The Franklin and the business climate downtown, Donaldson said.
"I'd love to have a legitimate business move in there, a lawyer move in, another fine restaurant," he said. "I'm looking forward to an improvement, whatever the investigation holds."
Some wondered what took police so long.
"Let's face it: this town's gentrifying," said Ashley Hayes, 26, of Chapel Hill. "You can't let that go on on the main drag."
But police say they have not been able to determine what, if anything, actually is going on.
Police Chief Brian Curran said University Massage has not generated any formal complaints about sexual activity, just reports of vandalism to cars parked in the rear parking lot.
No arrests have been made since the police probe began last fall, sparked by a Daily Tar Heel columnist who wrote that female staff offered sex acts in exchange for money.
Police so far have not seen any evidence of sex trafficking, defined as people brought from other places to perform in sexual servitude against their will. The investigation remains open, and Curran said police are "pursuing other avenues."
Giovanni Caligari has owned Trilussa la Trattoria, the Italian restaurant next to University Massage, for 12 years. He said aside from some vandalism to his vehicles, he hasn't had any problems with the business.
"I don't believe personally they make sex there," Caligari said.
"I've never called up the police to say, 'This business affects my business.'"
Shepard said the police investigation raises some interesting issues.
Instead of coming down on employees, local leaders should start a conversation about the issue of "sex exchange" in the Chapel Hill area, he said.
"Certainly having a kind of moralistic attitude -- 'This is always wrong all the time, and the people should just be locked up' -- is not going to stop it from happening," Shepard said.
"At the same time, there's some feminist perspectives that say all forms of sex exchange are just exploitation and ... we should abolish it all immediately and arrest the people who are patronizing them too," he continued. "I don't think that really addresses the issues. It has to do with poverty. It has to do with cycles of hopelessness. And it has to be do with the fact that the demand is always going to exist, and so long as the demand exists then people who are in economically precarious situations are going to rise to meet that demand."
"I hope that whatever comes of it, people will be safer and less economically precarious and able to make choices more on their own terms."
Mayor Kevin Foy, though, struck a firmer tone two weeks ago: "I don't think it's a matter of saying whatever's been going on can keep going on."
But Caligari said the fact that the business now knows police are watching it makes it less likely that anyone will be caught doing anything illegal.
"They'll go in there and see the girls reading the Bible," he said.
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