The woman behind RVA’s premier adult store, Taboo

Oodles of sex gizmos and gadgets await you inside Taboo. Here’s how the adult store is helping RVA get in touch with its wild side.

Each year, Alison Barber has her finger prints taken at a police station, submits to a background check, and fills out a form before paying $100 for the privilege of renewing her business license.

And she’s lucky.

“It’s really pretty impossible to open anywhere in the Richmond area now,” said Barber, owner of Taboo, a trinity of adult stores scattered across the region.

It became pretty impossible when strip club Gold City Showgirls opened in Henrico in 2001. “[That] caused a big uproar amongst Old Richmond, and because of that, that kind of started this whole change in the ordinances,” Barber said.

Henrico and Chesterfield soon made it difficult for stores selling adult toys to open. Taboo was given a reprieve from the new legislation in Henrico (where it operates) because it had existed since 1999 at 6021 W. Broad Street. “We were one of the few [adult stores] in Henrico to be grandfathered in, and we’re allowed to exist in this location,” Barber said.

Barber plunked down $200 for a for special adult business license to operate her shop, which she can renew annually for $100, but only after the finger prints and background check.

“Richmond is pretty much the same. It’s a little bit easier to open, but not easy enough,” she said. “Anybody trying to open a [new store] is going to be disappointed.”

In limiting the growth of adult stores in the area, local legislators have created an unintended result: Taboo is now the premier adult store in the region.

Barber has created a business predicated on the belief that sex is good and fun, and shouldn’t be relegated to the dark corners of shame and seedy neighborhoods.

“I think some people think, Oh that’s a porn store or That’s a couples store,” Barber said. “When really it’s just a fun store.”

Stuff you can’t get everywhere

Barber grew up in Richmond, attending Douglas Freeman High School and VCU. “I started college as an English major,” said Barber, whose charm and affability are as evident as her tattoos and lip piercings. “I kind of figured out after a year that I didn’t really know what I was going to do with that degree as far as a career, and I kinda decided to take some time off and started working retail.”

Barber’s interests (and major) eventually changed to fashion merchandising. “I was really enjoying the visual merchandising, as well as the buying and following trends, and that kind of thing,” she said. She eventually became assistant manager for Up Against the Wall at its former Cloverleaf and Regency stores. “Eventually I decided I wanted to open a retail store,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking adult retail. I was just thinking clothing and that kind of thing.”

Barber later became a part-time sales associate at Taboo Lingerie on Broad Street. “It was a totally different store,” she said. “It was an adult store, technically, but it was more lingerie. It was marketed as ‘Richmond’s upscale adult store.'”

Lingerie, by design, is meant to be seductive and appealing. The stock at Taboo Lingerie was neither of those things. “It was this kind of stuff you could get at a department store,” Barber said. “It wasn’t particularly fashionable. It wasn’t particularly young.”

To improve business, Barber convinced the owner to sell more movies (the store sold only 15 VHS tapes when Barber began working there). “The movies started selling, and I saw that was what people really wanted,” Barber said. She also convinced the owner to increase the number of toy offerings. “I saw that the toys were really what was selling, and [at the time] we had this tiny room of toys.”

Within a year, Barber became store manager and amassed 25 percent ownership in the business. In 2002, the owner sold Barber the business outright. “I bought her out and created Taboo and changed the whole concept,” Barber said. Instead of frilly lingerie, Taboo would cater to adults that wanted sexy, fun, adult stuff. “The stuff you can’t get everywhere.”

But you have to have everything

Oodles of sex gizmos and gadgets await you inside Taboo. Think the stock of a hyper-sexual Wal-Mart squeezed into 1/32 of the square-footage.

“It’s kind of my goal to have everything, so I just stock as much as I can,” Barber said. “A lot of people, they just know they want something that vibrates, and that’s it. But a lot of people come in and they want it to be six inches and Cyberskin and purple [and] without balls. And, you know, you have to have everything.”

One of the reasons Barber stocks everything is that people have become more open to trying things. “I feel like I’ve seen people increasingly less afraid to admit what they want,” she said when reflecting on how attitudes have changed in the last decade. “I feel like more customers have been more open with what they’re looking for.”

In addition to stocking a wide variety of similar items, Barber also caters to every fetish under the sun. “We’ve been selling more of the fetish-y type stuff; the restraints, that kind of thing,” she said. “I think 50 Shades of Grey had a lot to do with it. A lot of people are starting to experiment more in that vein.” Taboo is made to satisfy predilections and curiosities. “As wild as it is, as long as its legal, we have something to help you out.”

Barber said Taboo’s customers are more-or-less evenly split between men and women. “We get a ton of couples. People come by on date night or after they go out to dinner and pick up something fun to play with at home,” she said. Women also peruse Taboo’s stock sans partner. “We have a lot of women shopping for themselves.” She said the most popular item for women sold at Taboo is the Jack Rabbit vibrator. Flesh lights are the best-selling toy for men.

She said most customers are typically middle-aged who are eager to titillate their sex lives. “They’re looking to spice things up, change things, experience things for the first time,” Barber said. But Taboo’s customers are not entirely middle-aged. “We kind of cater toward anyone who is sexual, which is pretty much everybody.”

Barber has pumped up Taboo’s size twofold since taking over in 2002. She estimates that toys account for 40 percent of the store’s stock; its 10,000 DVDs account for 30 percent; and lingerie makes up the remaining 30 percent.

She said that despite the rise of digital video, DVDs remain popular among buyers and renters. “I think there are people who want to get their porn online, but there are a lot of people who don’t,” she said. She’s one of them. “I love DVDs. I love ordering DVDs.”

New Taboos

Barring hefty ordinance changes, Taboo’s location on Broad Street will remain Barber’s flagship store. Yet despite the region’s tight restrictions preventing new adult stores from opening, Barber has managed to create two new Taboos.

In June 2012, Barber bought an adult store at 5100 Midlothian Turnpike. Since the business was an existing adult store, grandfathered into the ordinance just as Taboo was, Barber could rebrand the store for the purpose of a second Taboo location without violating law.

“I basically demolished it and rebuilt it,” Barber said about the nearly year-long refurbishment, including an added second floor, leading up to the April 2013 opening. “It’s been better every month,” she said about business. “I think people are starting to realize that we’re there.”

She says the same about the Taboo located at the intersection of Patterson Avenue and Pump Road, which also opened in summer 2013. Like the Midlothian location, the third Taboo was once an adult store, Prime Time Video, which Barber superseded without seriously confronting Henrico’s ordinance.

Barber has made sure that each of her three stores have a common visual theme. “They all look the same when you go into any of them,” she said. “I think you know you’re in Taboo.”

Being responsible for three stores keeps Barber busy, but happy. “I really, really love my job,” she said, something that’s vital for all successful business owners, no matter what they do. “The most important thing is that you really love what you’re doing,” Barber said. “I think it’s a mistake to say, ‘Oh I think there’s a need for this kind of store so I’m going to create it and make a lot of money.'”

Barber’s passion and business acumen haven’t gone unnoticed. Taboo was named the national Independent Adult Store of the Year (2009), a Muse Award finalist for creativity among Virginia businesses (2010), and an AVN Award Best Boutique nominee (2012), among other nominations and accolades.

One of the biggest challenges in Barber’s life is balancing work and home, especially since recently delivering her and her husband’s second child. “It’s been difficult to divide my time because, if I could, I’d work 60 hours a week,” she said. “But I’d also be a stay-at-home mom.”

As she strives for that elusive work-life balance, Barber has no interest in leaving behind her Taboo ways. In fact, she thinks more people will appreciate how open, honest, and inclusive she makes her stores.

“It’s the opposite of the secretive, sketchy stores from the 1970s,” Barber said. “Its bright aisles and purple walls and things that make people happy. And why anybody would have a problem with that, or not want to be a part of that, I have no idea.”

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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