In Loring Park, a couple blocks away from where the Twin Cities Pride festival is typically held every year, Rainbow Road sits in a strip mall. From the outside, people can look in and see the rainbow feather boas, the colorful underwear, and LGBTQ+ themed tank tops sitting in the back of the store.
Jim Connelly, who is about to turn 72, opened Rainbow Road in 1996 to fill a gap in the market, making this year the store’s 25th anniversary. Back then, Connelly says, his store was one of few like it in the Midwest. “Nobody had a store like this in Minnesota,” he says. “The nearest one was Chicago. And after that, it was either New York or LA.”
Currently, Rainbow Road sells merchandise geared toward gay men, including T-shirts, clubbing outfits, and dildos. Connelly says he’s sold a range of products throughout his time and has changed his store to keep up with what consumers want.
Finding a Niche
Growing up outside Rochester, Minnesota, Connelly learned from a young age how to run a retail business. He started at Dayton’s, the precursor to Macy’s, as a salesperson in high school. After graduating college in 1972, Dayton’s hired him back as a buyer.
For years, he worked at the management level for several other retail stores before coming up with Rainbow Road.
He was in Phoenix, Arizona, looking to buy a couple of stores when he stumbled upon another gay business in a mall. He says he’d never seen anything like it before and realized there was a gap in the market for a gay business.
“The one thing about being successful in the retail market is you identify a niche that nobody else has,” Connelly says.
Today, you can find a wide market for Pride items. During the month of June, companies put out many rainbow items, and you can purchase a slew of LGBTQ+ themed things online. But back in the 1990s, merchandise that has become relatively commonplace today was rare, Connelly notes.
“[Opening Rainbow Road] was like a breakthrough. You had the Gay 90s, you had the Saloon, so you had a couple of bars,” he says, naming the bars in downtown Minneapolis. “But when we opened the store, it was a whole different element from the gay clubs. We became a retail place where you could go that people didn’t think would be around.”
In the beginning, Rainbow Road sold more gift shop items, such as T-shirts, candles, and calendars. But Connelly has changed his inventory to keep up with the market. Since the store’s beginning, he says he has expanded three times. He explains that today’s online platforms, like Etsy and Amazon, offer candles and T-shirts galore—so his current niche is clubbing outfits.
Clubs and bars have historically been some of the only safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, he notes. There’s a gay culture surrounding clubs and bars, so he figures it’s important that gay men have local options for their club clothes.
Connelly’s store primarily focuses on gay men. “We don’t have a lot of women’s stuff here because, quite frankly, we don’t understand them,” Connelly says. There are distinct cultural differences between gay men and women (fewer than two dozen lesbian bars exist in the U.S.), and Rainbow Road caters mainly to the sex and clubbing scene that gay men participate in.
Opening Rainbow Road didn’t just fill the need for rainbow tank tops in Minneapolis. It also created a safe space that didn’t involve loud music and alcohol.
Over the years, Connelly has held many different events in the store, including wine and cheese nights and nights where models come in and style the clothing he sells.
Store employee and Connelly’s longtime friend Jack Moreland describes Rainbow Road as a “gay hallmark.”
Moreland says even parents of gay children come in looking for support. “We had a dad come in the other day, and he wanted to buy a bracelet and a flag for his 13-year-old daughter that had just come out,” he says. “It just melts my heart when I realize that they see that kind of stuff.”
Connelly describes June as a “second Christmas” for the store. Pride draws in people from across the Midwest and Southern Canada, and they inevitably stop by his store.
“It’s easy for us to sit in Minneapolis and St. Paul and think that [being gay] is just normal. But when you’re coming from a small town in North or South Dakota, or Wisconsin or Iowa or the northern border of Canada, it’s not so normal,” Connelly says. “A lot of people who come in here are very isolated.”
Because of the pandemic, Twin Cities Pride is hosting Minneapolis’ well-known Loring Park festival on July 17-18 this year. For Connelly, Pride is a time to relax.
“Pride Month is all about people relaxing, letting their hair down and enjoying life,” he said. “We’re one of the few places in the whole five state area where you could be totally comfortable doing that.”
Rainbow Road, 109 W. Grant St., Minneapolis, 612-872-8448