Hamburg's oldest brothel shuts as business slows

HAMBURG, Germany (Reuters) - The owner of Hamburg’s oldest brothel, in the heart of Germany’s most famous red light district, has decided to close it down and retire after a sharp fall in business.

A prostitute says goodbye to a guest at the infamous brothel 'Hotel Luxor' at the Reeperbahn red-light district in Hamburg March 18, 2008. REUTERS/Christian Charisius

“It’s time to go,” owner Waltraud Mehrer told Reuters.

“It’s a pity, but business just isn’t what it used to be. We used to have 10 girls working here. Now we only have four.”

Mehrer, a glamorous blonde 59-year-old dressed in a dark suit who has been running the port city’s renowned ‘Hotel Luxor’ for 22 years, is selling up to a private investor.

She blamed her decision on the changing face of Hamburg’s nightlife in the notorious St. Pauli district and the Reeperbahn, its garish main street which is home to countless bars, strip clubs and discos.

“For every shop around here which closes, a disco comes and opens,” she said in an interview, referring to the cheap dance clubs springing up nearby.

The clubs have also brought CCTV cameras and police patrols, a deterrent for customers but welcomed by some anti-prostitution groups who worry about the welfare of the women at work.

Opened in 1948 by Mehrer’s father-in-law, the Luxor is the only family-run brothel on the Reeperbahn. Mehrer’s son runs a bar in the same building which puts on dance shows.

In its heyday in the late 1960s when the booming harbor provided a steady stream of custom and the Beatles played in a club nearby, the Luxor, also known as the Mehrer hotel, enjoyed an international reputation. It was especially popular with Japanese, but also among British and Irish tourists.

One prostitute, who declined to be named, recalled how people she met 10 or more years ago while holidaying in Tel Aviv said they knew Hamburg because of Mehrer’s hotel.

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“Sailors used to come here often but now the regulars are dying out,” said another, chatting in the brothel’s bar. The women were wearing revealing black skirts and low-cut tops.

These days the Luxor looks dated. Its plainly painted exterior and lack of neon lights or lurid pictures make it look drab compared with newer establishments on the strip.

The bar and rooms give an impression of comfort rather than seediness, with dark wood paneling on the ceiling, dim red lighting and a retro bar.

Mehrer said Internet pornography had contributed to the decline in business, as had the rise of the credit card, as the women prefer to be paid in cash.

She also complained about some of the new young prostitutes, many of whom are believed to be victims of human trafficking.

“Sure those girls are pretty, but some of them are just 19. They’re mainly foreign women, eastern Europeans, and don’t care about the satisfaction of their customers like we do.”

Mehrer refuses to talk to pimps about her workers’ rates of pay and does not let them into the hotel, but she can’t block out the nasty side of the business.

“All I can do is let the women walk away with their money. I can’t control what happens to it then. But you still see the men waiting at the entrance,” she sighed.

“Most of them say the man is their husband,” she said, shaking her head.

Prostitution is a legitimate occupation in Germany and nearly half a million prostitutes are estimated to ply their trade, serving more than 1 million clients a day.

Most work in bars, clubs or brothels, while the rest operate as call girls, escorts or on the streets. Around 10 percent are believed to be drug addicts, say welfare groups.

Looking around, Mehrer -- who likes to play tennis in her free time -- said she wasn’t sure how she would feel when the Luxor closed down at the end of March. She declined to say what the private investors intended to do with it.

“We’ve had some great times,” she said. “But times are changing. Things here just aren’t the same any more. Now we’ve got to come to terms with that.”

Reporting by Carolyn Palmer, editing by Tim Pearce