Margaret was a single mother who was working as a beautician on Dixie Highway, and didn’t have enough money to make ends meet. She needed more money to support herself and she and her daughter started buying things at yard sales, and by fixing them up, and selling them again. She found that she could make some extra money. From these meager beginnings, Margaret was able to open her first consignment store.
Her 28-year-old Frankfort Avenue business — a complex of four cottages converted to storefronts at 2700 Frankfort Ave. — employs 11 people and has become a destination for bargain hunters from all tax brackets.
She likes to say that she sells to everyone from millionaires who can afford to shop anywhere to people with nothing who can’t afford to shop anywhere else. She’s one of a group of a dozen entrepreneurs who turned Frankfort Avenue business district into a vital retail corridor, and everyone who has businesses there greatly appreciate what she’s done.
John Johnson, who owns The Wine Rack at 2632 Frankfort, calls Browning “a champion of the area … a tireless promoter” of the Frankfort Avenue Business Association and its component small businesses. Johnson, like many who know the petite Browning, has stories about her expansive personality.
“She really embraced me when I moved here” to open The Wine Rack in 2003. “She literally brought people into my store and insisted that they shop here,” Johnson said. “And who wants to argue with her?”
Those who know Browning say she has a desire to see others do as well as she has done well. She wants others to enjoy life as she enjoys a life she can’t quite believe she created.
Margaret’s often repeated line about her success is, “Not bad for a Shively girl.” She moves easily in “society.” She rarely is seen in anything less than black Armani and heels.
Margaret was the third of 12 children, and she doesn’t mind tell people that she grew up with too many children in her family who had to suffer because of her alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother. She remembers being 5 years old, dusting a buffet table and arranging lamps in an attempt to make her home look better. “We were so poor, everything we had was something someone else threw away,” she said. “I guess I was so embarrassed I wanted to make things look better, like my friends’ houses.
By the early 1980s, her life hadn’t gotten dramatically better. She was in her 40s and had worked for 25 years as a beautician at Eli’s Barber Shop in the Bacons Center on Dixie Highway. She was divorced and trying to support her teenage daughter. So she started thinking about capitalizing on her talent of making something from nothing — the copper pot or the silver-plated bowl she’d buy at yard sales for 50 cents, polish up, then resell for $5 at her own weekend sales. “I did that for years and years,” Browning said.
In 1982, she decided to open her own consignment shop at Stilz and Frankfort avenues, paying $425 per month in rent for five rooms that had been an apartment. She worked around the clock, cutting hair in the mornings and building her business at night. Because she didn’t yet have consignment accounts, she would hit yard sales, clean up her haul and turn it into the inventory for her new shop.
The early days of Margaret’s Consignment were far from auspicious. After she left the barbershop to concentrate on her shop, she struggled to make ends meet, and she tells stories about making it through days with $1 in her purse. But by 1991, Margaret’s Consignment was making enough money that Browning was able to buy a bigger location with better visibility.
The building she bought in 1991 became part of a 5,000-square-foot complex of selling space. She recalls that in the expansion process, she got down to 11 cents in her business account. Browning said she prayed that weekend and got a miracle: The shop took in $3,000 over a Friday and Saturday. “Monday, I had to run to the bank and pay the (overdraft) fee. I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’
“I’ll tell you … we didn’t give up, but I was sweating a few times. I was divorced. I had to make money. I thought, ‘I have to do it.’ I was in a situation where I had to survive, and that’s all I focused on. “I prayed and I hoped, and I never said, ‘What if I fail?’ ”
Today, Margaret’s Consignments is booming, generating about $1.5 million in annual sales. And it’s an engine for driving surrounding businesses, with Browning as the spark plug.
“No question, Margaret has a big role” in the Frankfort Avenue Business Association, said Don Burch. Browning was among the first who Burch said invested in a Frankfort Avenue corridor that today is “dramatically different from when we arrived,” with more shops and double the number of restaurants.
“I give Margaret a lot of credit,” Burch said. “She’s an absolute doer. And as good as she is, you have to have something driving you inside. I think she’s trying to put as much distance between who she is today and an ugly start.”
Browning still works seven days a week, her employees say. And she never asks employees to do anything she wouldn’t do, said Pat Moore, Margaret’s Consignment store manager. “Oh, yeah,” added Chris Garner, a saleswoman, “you look up and she’s climbing the ladder to change some display— in heels!”
Browning herself said she’ll never escape her past, and she doesn’t want to. “My sister used to say, ‘Oh, don’t say 12 kids when you talk to people.’ I’m proud of it. If I hadn’t have gone through it all, I wouldn’t be who I am today. “Nothing’s going to my head. If it did, God would take it all away.”
On May 29, Margaret will tell you how she did it all. It’s a success story you won’t want to miss.