Could there be a greater anachronism these days than a video rental store? Didn't somebody declare the idea of renting a movie from an actual person dead as a doornail about the time the Blockbuster leviathan went belly up some years back? And yet, there is the reality of Main Street's RAO Video.
RAO was started by businessman Bob Oliver in 1977. The original store was a tiny 10-by-10-foot kiosk in the middle of Metrocentre Mall. The selection was limited in the early days. "I had 10 movies," Oliver said. "Five X-rated and five Westerns."
After outgrowing that space, RAO moved to the Donaghey Building, then to 615 Main St., before settling in 2001 at their current store at 609 Main.
Bob Oliver's son, Victor, is the manager of RAO Video. He said that as a kid, he remembers going into the stores along Main Street and going to eat at the D&D Cafe. He said it was sad seeing most of the other tenants along Main Street disappear.
"I've seen all the retail shops close," he said. "When DHS built the new building, it definitely increased the flow of traffic on Main Street, but there are still tons of people down here who have no place to eat lunch — or nowhere close. It looks like it's coming back through. We definitely support it and want to see it."
Victor Oliver said diversification has been a big part of RAO's survival. In addition to over 30,000 titles on DVD and Blu-ray — including a big selection of martial arts films and foreign pulp flicks, and a well-stocked adult section upstairs — one side of RAO has been subdivided into smaller shops, including a hair stylist, a computer repair shop, and an adult boutique/smoke shop. On the DVD rental side, Victor Oliver said that RAO has been able to stay in business even as competitors like Blockbuster and Movie Gallery died off because they're able to adapt.
"They couldn't make changes on the fly," he said. "They couldn't make changes that would reflect the demographics of that particular area. ... Since we're family owned and operated, if we see something that needs to change, we can change it right then."
Bob Oliver said a performing arts school, ReCreation Studio, has signed a lease on the building he owns across the street. Asked if he's concerned that the city or new neighbors might begin giving him grief over his adult video rentals or the adult toy shop inside RAO as the street comes back to life, Oliver said that, as someone who believes in freedom, "I'll fight them until I'm dead."
"This is downtown Little Rock," he said. "We're a little more casual, and we do things a little differently than they do in West Little Rock. It does bother me that a bunch of West Little Rock people will move down here and try to tell me how to act. They're going to have a fight on their hands, that's all I can tell you."