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RAO adapts

In the age of Reddit, it takes more than porn to keep the doors open.



In case it wasn't clear from the sign out front, RAO Video has been in operation since 1977. It's the gritty, shapeshifting brainchild of Bob Oliver (as in, Robert Abraham Oliver), who made it his mission in the late 1970s to hip the residents of Main Street Little Rock to the wonders of VHS and built a career — and some would argue, a small community — out of renting videos in the pre-internet era. The store's since transitioned to DVD and Blu-Ray for most of its video selections and diversified its portfolio to include vapes, vape accessories and "juice," and an array of glass pipes and water pipes. And, of course, adult videos and novelties: The white door at the sales floor's eastern wall bears a sign advertising "Magazines: $6.99 or 2 for $10." Below that, there's a yellowing sliver from the funny papers — a single panel of John Deering's "Strange Brew," wherein a salesperson issues an apology to his hard-hatted prospective customer with a "Sorry, I can't sell to miners."

Elsewhere on the door are relics of bygone days at RAO: a sign that reads "ARCADE OPEN," something that owner and shop manager Victor Oliver (Robert's son) says doesn't entice as many people as it once did — perhaps, he says, because they are a bit stricter about what they allow to go on behind those closed doors than arcades in bigger cities might be. There's also a sign for the discontinued Downtown Haircare, an adjacent business space now occupied by Oak Forest Vintage. (Oak Forest, a late January addition to the Main Street landscape, specializes in 1980s and '90s garb; there's an Oakland Raiders windjacket, a rack of hand-painted denim, old-school Razorback and ASU tees; handbags, luggage and a handful of oversized couture pullover sweaters in mixed stitching, one with an elaborate sea creature motif.) The Olivers have been able to diversify the building's businesses because they own it, "and because we listen to our employees."

The door also bears continuing witness to RAO's old standby: Behind it are adult novelties and videos. Unsurprisingly, the era of Wood Rocket and thousands of sub-Reddits devoted to obscure fetishes means that RAO's skinflicks aren't the cash cow they once were. "The clientele has gotten older," Victor told us, "people who don't want to figure out how to get online and find it." And, he adds, primarily residents of the immediate area, as the ongoing construction on Main Street's 500 and 600 blocks has rendered the idea of popping a quarter in the meter to run inside for a quarter hour all but obsolete. RAO's had to straddle a fine line, and it's meant it had to be nimble, shifting the focus of the business whenever appropriate. The vape business, he says, used to be around 20 percent of the business; now it's closer to 50 percent, perhaps a testament to vaping's meteoric rise in popularity, or perhaps Victor's attention to detail when it comes to helping a customer understand how to operate (and how not to operate) the device they've just purchased.

"The adult movies, I used to get about 80 to 100 a week. Now I get about 50 a month." It's hard for his older customers to understand why, he says, when they special order something, it takes two weeks or so to arrive. When free pornography on the internet proliferated, evidently mail-order porn aged into dinosaur territory.

A look in RAO's "toy room" — actually two separate smaller rooms — reveals a wall with red mesh leotards, a two-piece in black lace with a peek-a-boo top, a strap-on that attaches to a knee like a low-hanging garter, fishnets and more fishnets, waterproof silicon toys from a Chinese supplier, a "Rabbit" teaser and a "Butterfly" teaser, most of which are going for considerably less than their counterparts at higher-end lingerie and novelty chains. "I'm amazed at how people go and spend twice this amount for the same product," he said.

RAO Video & RAO Vapes is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

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