Jill Bennett refuses to let loss, disappointment define her

Jill Bennett, owner of Birthday Suits, is a survivor.

Daryl Law

It was snow that led Jill Bennett to her career in swimsuit retail. But it was at the beach where she finally learned to chill out.

Bennett, an elegant, lithe woman who probably looks great in any bathing suit, has learned from life, and her devoted customers, that we are too hard on ourselves — especially when shopping for a swimsuit.

The key to a positive experience, she says, is to keep things in perspective.

“I think women, especially, are way too critical of their flaws,” Bennett says, while conversing on a comfortable couch at her store Birthday Suits in Kill Devil Hills. “It’s just a bathing suit. Don’t stress out about it.”

Bennett has emerged intact after one of the worst stresses a human can experience: loss of her beloved spouse and business partner, Greg, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009 at age 57. Initially, he had defied the odds and went into remission.

Bennett said they had put the business in the hands of her able niece who was managing the Corolla store, and moved to Durham while Greg underwent treatment. It was worth it, buying precious time.

“It wasn’t until the very end of ’09 that it finally got bad,” she says. “He had three great years. “

The couple met in 1973 at a mall in Newport News, when they both worked evening hours at the mall. Her day job was teaching art; his was a juvenile probation officer. Greg starting working full time in the snow ski business in the winters, and Jill soon joined him. To fill her time in the summers, she started working at a bikini shop in Virginia Beach owned by the ski business owner.

In 1983, the couple decided to open their own swimwear business in Nags Head and moved to the Outer Banks. They lived at Greg’s mother’s place in the Cozy Cover Trailer Park off of Colington Road, Bennett recalls, and had a blast.

“Actually, it was one of the fun-est times in my life. We had no TV. We read. We went to the beach.”

But when their son, Dylan, came along in 1984, they knew it was time to settle down. They moved the business to Kill Devil Hills. Daughter Alexia was born in 1987.

It took a while, but eventually the store was getting enough business to stay open year round.

Locations were added in Corolla, Duck and Hatteras. (The Hatteras store was closed after Greg died.)

Barely a month after Greg’s death, the Kill Devil Hills store was nearly destroyed by an electrical fire. After a lot of thought, Bennett decided to rebuild on the same footprint — only the fireplace remains of the original building.

Turns out, she says, that was definitely the right decision.

“I wasn’t ready to retire,” she says. “I’m so glad I kept the business. I stay super busy, and that’s what keep you healthy — and I love my job. I work with all young people. That’s a good thing.”

Bennett admits to being somewhat of a control freak. She works out regularly and maintains a healthy lifestyle. But, yes, she keeps things in perspective.

“I tell my kids all the time: ‘Is it life or death?’” she says. “Then just move on.”

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