Speak, Arkansas: Bob Oliver 

  • Brian Chilson
  • Bob Oliver

Bob Oliver, 76, started RAO Video in 1977 as a 10-by-10-foot kiosk on the corner of Main Street and Capitol Avenue. He's relocated twice since then before ultimately purchasing 609 Main St. in 2001 and converting the 10,000-square-foot loft area above the store into his personal residence — a Hugh Hefner-style bachelor pad fit for the owner of the largest adult video collection in all of Arkansas.

The loft is equipped with two movies theaters, three custom bathrooms, a full-sized kitchen, a pool hall, an arcade, a sauna, a home gym, a home office, a master bedroom with three walk-in closets and a freight elevator.

As Oliver toured a reporter around RAO Video and the loft above, he described his life and how he got into the video rental business:

In the '40s I sang one block up from here on Eighth and Scott streets, at the Boys Club [a forerunner to the Boys and Girls Club of America]. I sang on their radio program every Saturday for almost four years. I was their star singer, and they called me Strawberry Blonde, because of my blonde hair. The only person still alive that remembers me singing on the radio is my youngest brother's wife; she had a crush on me back then (laughs). As a young man I worked for AT&T, which was Western Electric at the time. I was laid off in 1958 and went to work at McCrory McLellan [a now-defunct chain of five-and-dime stores] for two years, which used to be right across the street.

I was assistant manager of the lunch counter at McCrory McLellan when they had the sit-ins. Scared the shit out of me: I was back there working, I turned around, and there were 40 black people at the stools wanting service. At that time there was a black lunch counter on one side and a white lunch counter on the other. They were all sitting at the white counter and I didn't know what to do — hell, two of the black guys were guys that worked with me. Well, the police came down and scared 'em off before anything else could happen.

After the lunch counter, I went back to work for AT&T for almost 17 years before I opened the shop in 1977. I started with five black-and-white Westerns and five adult films on Beta tape. My mother and sister helped run the store during the day so I could continue to work at AT&T. One day while my sister was working, a guy came in the store, tied her up behind the counter, took $100 out of the register and left.

That was probably the only 30 minutes the whole time I've been in the video business that there wasn't anybody else in the entire store and that's the only problem I've ever had in the store. I retired from AT&T in 1989 and started work at the video store full time. When I first started, I also filmed a lot of events — quite a few weddings — and I rented out video equipment, like cameras, and video recorders, too.

I originally went into the video business because it was a new freedom; at least that's how I saw it. Everything on television was censored, and it was hard to find anything of good quality that wasn't. But when video came along, you could film anything you wanted to and watch it on your own TV in the privacy of your home. And I said to myself, "There's enough dirty old men out there that this is going to be big." That was the main reason I got in this business. If I didn't have adult films, I wouldn't be in business, there's no money in regular movies.

Over the years I've had regular customers, with favorite titles, genres and special requests. That helped shape the collection we have now and allowed us to interact with our customers in ways that other stores just couldn't. The reason we're still in business and Blockbuster isn't is because I had adult videos and offered that individual interaction. I could and would order what customers requested and I had obscure titles that the larger stores just didn't carry. It was all about customer service; it still is. Of course I've had a few favorite customers over the years, but being in this business, all of your customers are good customers, it really makes it hard to pick just one.

Nowadays, I rent around 200 movies a day and receive at least 250-300 new releases a week for the adult film selection. Of course, people don't spend as much now because we've got deals where you can rent five different movies a day for about $40 a month, but it's better and cheaper than Netflix. Honestly, I could care less about Netflix, because downstairs is just a front. It's [the adult video selection] upstairs that I care about, really. That's where the real money is made.

— As told to Kaya Herron


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