A pleasantly surprising experience

Couple find retail niche selling fun, hard-to-find gifts for all ages

By Colin Chazen
Contributing Writer
Pleasant Surprise carries everything you never knew you wanted. Looking for a how-to-kazoo manual? How about “Snore No More” nose clips, or the morbid travel guide “Where are they Buried? How did they Die?” Those are among the hundreds of products in stock. More

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A pleasantly surprising experience

Couple find retail niche selling fun, hard-to-find gifts for all ages

PBN PHOTO/DAVE LEVESQUE
MORE IN STORE: Constantine Simon, left, and his parents, Pleasant Surprise owners Dee Dee Hopkins-Simon and Eli Simon, recently opened a store on Thayer Street in Providence.
By Colin Chazen
Contributing Writer
Posted 9/7/09

Pleasant Surprise carries everything you never knew you wanted. Looking for a how-to-kazoo manual? How about “Snore No More” nose clips, or the morbid travel guide “Where are they Buried? How did they Die?” Those are among the hundreds of products in stock.

The inventory reflects the eclectic tastes of owners Dee Dee Hopkins-Simon and Eli Simon, who, along with their son, Constantine, do most of the purchasing of items from over 200 vendors.

“Is it fun or thought-provoking? That’s the only criteria we use,” Eli Simon said.

The owners have been scouring the country for the best gifts and most intriguing items for 28 years, since opening Pleasant Surprise in Newport in 1981. The store is actually their second, third or maybe even fourth business, depending on who you ask. After graduating from Providence College, where they met, the couple opened a plant store in Newport in 1974.

Managing the store proved to be a sharp learning curve for the pair, who majored in psychology and social work in college. “We’d never been in business before,” he said. “You buy some inventory and think it’s going to last a long time.”

The plant store eventually evolved into a wicker-furniture business. They also once owned a clothing store. But Pleasant Surprise, which evolved from their other businesses after starting as a way to inject some fun into their sales lines, proved to be the one that lasted.

The business, like all retail stores, has been affected by the economic recession, Simon said. “We were accustomed to doing great, now we’re doing good,” he said.

But the recession has also created opportunities for the business, they said. Though they have been looking to open additional locations for several years, it’s only recently that they have found vacancies in desirable locations.

Last October, they opened a second store four doors down from their Newport location. In November, they opened up a Providence branch on Thayer Street. The owner of the Providence space actually approached them about moving in after the previous tenant went out of business, Eli Simon said.

“That’s what happens in this economy, opportunities arise,” he said. “It’s a great time to expand because of the economy.”

Although they’ve never had to advertise and the Providence store has done well since the day it opened, Hopkins-Simon insists that running the stores is no easy task. “Everyone says ‘I’d love to own a store like this.’ I’m like: ‘Sure you would,’ ” she said. “To keep it fresh all the time takes a lot of work.”

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