Some people make a community better simply by being the kind of people they are. Cary Brown, one of Memphis’s most active philanthropists and an all-around engaging lady, is one of those people.
From her position as President of the Memphis Garden Club to her ownership of two local retail stores to an occasional musical performance, you never know where you might see Cary either behind the scenes or center stage, but she fills all roles with talent, energy and grace. Welcome Cary Brown, today’s FACE of Memphis!
As a native Memphian, why do you love Memphis?
It may be cliché, but it’s true: the people of Memphis have gritty soul. Many of my non-Memphis friends tell me that Memphians are quite unique, and I agree. There is a certain rawness and crazy individuality here, but I love it!
Your professional life in Memphis has included the opening of two retail stores. When did this path begin?
With the exception of a short stint with National Bank of Commerce in the 1980s, every job I have ever had was in the retail area. I worked at Goldsmiths and Tallulah’s during high school and college. I worked for my mother-in-law at Brown-Wright Jewelers for several years in my 20s, and then I opened “From Here to Maternity” with my lifelong friend, Wilda Hudson, in 1987. We remained partners throughout the life of that store and then, in 1999, we switched gears to start Memphis’s Lilly Pulitzer signature store, “The Pink Door.” It’s been a wild ride!
Memphis is lucky to still have The Pink Door, but what made you decide to sell the business and go in other directions?
I was about to turn 50; my children were becoming more and more independent; and the time seemed right. I was beginning to get tired of worrying about my business—in retail you are only as good as tomorrow, and that can get stressful.
Several times a year, I go to market to help Gina Yauger, who is the principal buyer for Coming Attractions [clothing boutique]. We have gone to NYC, Atlanta and Dallas, but recently we began going to Las Vegas. I work another day or two at The Stovall Collection, a stationery and gift shop in Laurelwood. Between those two part-time jobs, I can satisfy all my retail needs without the worry of owning a store!
You are known for playing a large part in making Memphis even more beautiful with your horticultural talents. What do you enjoy most about your involvement with major public gardens in the area?
I am on the Gardens committee at Dixon, which helps advise Dale Skaggs in many areas of the gardens, and I volunteer in the potting hub, helping them get plant material ready for the gardens and ready for their plant sales, which I also help with. We might pot up amaryllis for Christmas or transfer tree saplings to larger pots or propagate cuttings. I also do flower arrangements for the museum once a month. I absolutely love helping Dale [Director of Horticulture at Dixon Gallery and Gardens] and his crew as they tackle projects in the potting shed at Dixon along with other members of the Memphis Garden Club. You can often find me wrist-deep in Dixon’s specially mixed potting soil, repotting saplings or potting up amaryllis to be used in their Christmas displays.
I also love the Memphis Botanic Garden, and I have volunteered at their holiday Snowy Nights events and served on their advisory board.
When did you first become interested in garden-related activities in Memphis and/or at home?
I grew up on Morningside Park and we had a large garden that my mother tended just about every day. I have vivid memories of her watering late into the night. She also loved to sneak a snipping from gardens she visited—Monticello, Mount Vernon, etc. —and then come home and try to propagate the cuttings in her garden.
Do you prefer dig-in-the-dirt gardening or the decorative aspect of gardening?
Digging in the dirt is what I like most about the garden (until about August 1st when the heat is just unbearable). There is nothing more rewarding than watching your flowers grow, cutting them and then putting them on the kitchen island for the whole family to enjoy!
Your creativity extends to music as well. What are some of your favorite musical outlets, both on and off the stage, in Memphis?
I am a real music nut! A good rock ‘n’ roll concert is just about my favorite thing in the world. I also like a good live band in a small venue, such as Celtic Crossing, BB Kings, The New Daisy, etc.
Several times this year, I have gone to Jim’s Place to sing with Hudson and Saleeby. There is always a supportive crowd, and with Chris Hudson and Doug Saleeby playing piano and singing harmony, anyone sounds likes professional!
Last month, I took my daughters, Huxley and Amelia, to see Beyoncé in Nashville. She was amazing; she’s the total entertainment package.
Are you partial to any of Memphis’ many charitable organizations? If so, why?
I have recently been turned on to the “A Step Ahead,” a foundation started by former Juvenile Court Judge Claudia Haltom. They are addressing the crippling problem of teenage pregnancy by supplying free contraception to high school girls in the Memphis community. I also believe in the Neighborhood School’s mission, and I try to serve lunch there a couple of times a month. I love getting back in the kitchen and visiting with the kids as they come through the lunch line.
Describe your family and how you have balanced your many interests with family through the years.
My family is very used to my hectic schedule. They think I am sick if I relax around the house for too long!
Do you have a specific mentor? How has that person influenced you?
There is a long list of people who have helped me along the way; if they are willing to teach me, I am usually willing to learn. In the retail world, my first boss was Lucy Woodson and she was a very good example of a hard working shop owner. I also admire Buzzy Hussey (Babcock Gifts) so much – she has been able to run a very successful shop, but it is almost secondary to her the contributions she has made in our community. She also takes very interesting and challenging trips all over the world, and she never seems to get tired!
Best advice you have ever received? Favorite quote?
I keep a copy of Desiderata on the wall of my closet and I read it quite frequently. I think it covers all of the parts of life that are important to me. On a lighter note, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” I like that a lot, too!
How do you unwind/recharge your battery?
Playing the piano is my go-to relaxation. I have played since I was very young and I find that it really does trick.
I also cook a lot and love to try new things. Last week, I canned 106 quarts of tomatoes with two friends. We had a Ripley farmer deliver 16 bushels of tomatoes, and it was quite an undertaking! They should make quite an unusual Christmas gift for friends and family.
I am easily bored, love to learn new things and rarely run out of steam. I hope that my tombstone will read: “She danced every dance!”
Favorite place(s) to eat out in Memphis?
I have a few favorite meals in town: the Chicken Paillard at River Oaks, the Sea Bass on Black Rice at Tsunami, the Ragin’ Cajun at Holiday Deli, the onion rings at Huey’s, the Black Bean Breakfast Burrito at Brother Juniper’s … I could go on and on!
Favorite escape or guilty pleasure?
I love to read, especially historical fiction, biographies and anything about the English royals. I can also waste a lot of time on jigsaw puzzles. And every Wednesday night, I play trivia at Celtic Crossing [Irish Pub in Cooper-Young] with an ever-changing group of friends.
Favorite vacation or travel destination?
Always someplace where there’s water; I am happiest when I am swimming! I love the ocean best, but I will take Pickwick Lake as a close second!
What three lighthearted things could you not live without?
Piano, iPhone, a book
What must-have fashion item is in your closet (or on your mind) for fall/winter 2013?
I’m looking for a great pair of black booties, but I can’t wear 4″ and 5″ heels so I may be looking for a while!
Thank you Cary!
And thank you to Whitney McNeill for today’s wonderful photos!