David Riordan recently ran away and joined the circus - a fact that would surprise no one familiar with Oop!, the eclectic and playful Rhode Island home furnishing and gift store that Riordan and his wife, Jennifer Neuguth, founded in 1990. Sponsoring and helping to organise Circus Smirkus - a traditional big-top event featuring young performers who learnt to juggle, clown, and fly on the trapeze at a Vermont summer camp - was a "natural fit" for a store whose employees are called Oopsters.
"The underlying theme at Oop! is fun," says Riordan. "There's a sense of humour involved in a lot of our products: they're meant to tickle the funny bone and be appreciated in the home." The two Oop! stores-cum-galleries - one in the heart of Providence's downtown arts and entertainment district on Westminster Street, the other in suburban South County - are chock-a-block with quirky furniture, jewellery, toys, and other handmade creations from contemporary US artists, many from the New England region. Customers can spend US$1 on a simple trinket or $5,000 on an intricately carved and brightly painted piece of Sticks furniture from the acclaimed Woodstock, NY, artist Sarah Grant, who details all of her work with inspirational sayings and whimsical images.
Made of American hardwood, the Sticks line of bookcases, tables, trunks, beds and other home furnishings is one of the most enduringly popular offerings at Oop! "It's extraordinary furniture, built to last and be loved," says Riordan, who notes that 60 per cent of all Sticks purchases are custom-ordered to match the themes and interests of buyers. "One of my favourite things to do is to work with customers on furniture that will be passed down from generation to generation."
Gold and silver jewellery from the San Francisco artist Jeanine Payer is also a longtime favourite at Oop!; each earring, necklace, ring and bracelet is inscribed with passages of published and unpublished poetry. Payer's work appeals to Oop!'s target audience of 30- to 50-year-old women. However, the store is especially popular with college students, some them the children of those who patronised the store when Riordan and Neuguth - just out of school themselves at the time - opened the original boutique on Thayer Street near Brown University and the University of Rhode Island.
Nearly two decades later, Oop!, which stands for Out of Providence!, has become a local institution and a key supporter and component of the city's cultural scene. It co-sponsors the annual Providence Art Festival and partners with local theatres, one of which last month held a special performance of Cabaret at Oop!. A website, Oopstuff.com, brings the Oop! aesthetic to customers from all around the world, and Oop! even collaborates with international companies like Fidelity Investments on custom-designed gifts for employee anniversaries and incentive programmes.
Yet Riordan and Neuguth remain committed to their original vision for the store: a few years ago they closed a lucrative branch in the upmarket Providence Place Mall, for example, because they felt they were losing touch with the artists and craftspeople who have been their partners from the beginning. "People come in to Oop! to be inspired creatively," says Riordan. "A sense of fun transcends age, and I think we bring out the kid in everyone."
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