The Show Must Go On...
The states in which Haltom locates his stores are noteworthy, if for no other reason than that they're not the most hospitable places for stores selling adult-oriented products.
And the only people more acutely aware of that than Haltom are his lawyers. It's hard enough making a retail business profitable, but Haltom has done it while spending a small fortune on legal fees to defend his right to stay in business.
On the other hand, Haltom says his legal troubles have been a blessing to his business, going back to his very first experience in adult retail.
Haltom and his parents had a stall at the market that they worked on weekends. A friend gave him 12 VHS tapes, and Haltom discretely sold 10 of them out of a wooden crate — for a handsome profit. A few weeks later, his parents asked him to help run their lingerie store. Remembering his success at the flea market, Haltom added adult videos to the store's inventory mix.
It wasn't long before two of the local gentry launched a campaign to close the store.
"I was a 20-year-old kid. There was all sorts of news media there, and I was scared shitless," Haltom tells XBIZ. "But sales jumped to $1,000 a day. My dad came back and looked at the books. He couldn't believe it.
"The next year, we did $500,000 in sales."
Haltom had the bug. He opened two stores of his own. It was around that time that St. Louis got a new prosecutor who Haltom says made life hell for mom-and-pop stores.
"I thought, 'This is just the kind of fight I'm looking for. Who is he to tell people what to do in their own bedroom?'"
So Haltom took the offensive and went straight to the media.
"I gave them sound bites I wanted them to use," he says. "If they wanted the story, they had to use what I told them. I figured, even if a story came out that was negative toward me, at least I got to say what I wanted to say," Haltom says.
As his business grew, a formula emerged that Haltom would become intimately familiar with: Persecution brings publicity, and publicity can be used to boost sales. So Haltom never shied from the spotlight or backed down from a fight.
He's lost count of how many times prosecutors have come after him, whether for local zoning ordinances or obscenity. "I think the word is notorious," he jokes. Even though he's able to laugh at it, Haltom has paid a stiff price — he has come out on the losing end in the courtroom and lost his freedom several times, serving 30 days in a Utah jail and six months in Nebraska.
"Attorneys in these states — prosecutors and defenders — don't always understand obscenity," Haltom says. He points to a case in which police raided one of his stores on St. Patrick's Day, seized every video and every toy and closed the store. Haltom did his own research and discovered the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that officials cannot seize a store's entire inventory, especially when the warrant calls for the seizure of only a specific item, as it did in Haltom's case. He presented the information to his lawyers, who brought it to the attention of the prosecutor at a pretrial hearing. The judged immediately delayed the hearing, and it never took place — the city dropped the charges.
Win or lose, every legal battle zaps Haltom in the wallet. He estimates that he's spent up to half a million dollars defending himself. And he's paid in other ways, too. After a story about one of his convictions ran on the front page of the Sunday St. Louis Post-Dispatch, his sister didn't speak to him for four months.
So why does he continue to open stores in areas where he knows trouble is sure to follow? Because it's within his legal rights, and he thinks it's important to stick up for those rights.
"If someone doesn't fight this fight, what's the next thing they take away?" He asks. "Just because some city tells you that you can't do something, don't believe them. When I opened my Spanish Forks store [in Utah], another store that only sold cable versions of movies tried using a connection with the mayor's office to keep us out. We had a 5,000-square-foot store ready to open in 24 hours. They held a 7 a.m. emergency meeting to sign an ordinance into law, then the mayor had to catch a 9 a.m. flight to go on vacation.
"None of it was legal."