Whitesburg KY

Letcher County Chamber of Commerce

When I meet Debbie Campbell for the first time at her consignment shop in Whitesburg, she greets me as if we’ve known one another forever. Dressed in a vibrant blue sweater, she beams in the late-afternoon August sunshine. Blue is the color du jour for her and her staff, she later tells me, to pay tribute a recently deceased local man who was an organ donor. I’m immediately impressed, both with her social consciousness and her engagement; I didn’t know it was blue day.

As we settle into the interview, I discover that in the nearly four years since she opened her shop, which she has named for her daughter, Annie, this is the third location. A 2010 fire decimated the original location that was housed in the west part of town in the old Mason house, while a second location across the river from the college that became known for its very pink exterior was quickly outgrown.

The search that ended with the latest home for Annie’s was formerly the Masonic Lodge, which has since relocated downtown. Annie’s, she tells me, might also have stayed downtown. “We looked at the old Dawahare’s building. More than anything else, parking was an issue. The third time we visited we parked at the end of town and it started sprinkling the rain and I thought, folks with armfuls of clothes won’t find this convenient.”

The new Annie’s, which is still very pink, has plenty of parking and plenty of room to grow. “It’s an old building but really well built. We put a whole lot into it, but I think there’s a real good possibility we could outgrow this building.”

For now, though, there’s plenty of space to display, sort, and house all the items for the store’s more than 2,000 consigners that hail from all over the region. When I remark on how seamlessly everything seems to operate, she gives a great deal of credit to the inventory management system — complete with barcodes and scanners — the store uses to track items. “Every item,” she tells me, “goes into our system before it hits the floor.”

The consignment business has seen something of a surge in recent years as the economy has been slow to recover from the great recession, but it has always had a certain amount of cachet for Ms. Campbell. After visiting a number of consignment stores in various locales and studying the business, she decided she would give it a try here. It has been a success far beyond her reckoning.

But despite having a keen interest in the consignment side of the resale business, she maintains she has not always been entrepreneurial. She has, however, long been up for a challenge, both seeking and appreciating the uncertainty of change. “I chose this particular area because I love consignment. I love the recycling and love the fact that when you come here it’s like you’re going on a treasure hunt; you don’t know exactly what you will find. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach to shopping and it allows people to be creative and have a different look.”

The key to a successful consignment business is appreciating the market in which your store serves, she tells me. “We don’t take everything,” she says of the items consigners bring to her to sell. “We only take items of a certain quality.”

Likewise, the prices that certain items may sell for in a different market may not work here. Assigning a price to an item takes both a little art and a little science. “Every item that comes in has a range that values it according to the condition of the item and the brand. That price is then tempered with what we know is affordable in our area.” A pair of jeans in Lexington might sell for $10 more than it would here, she says, but it depends on a number of factors including the popularity of the item. For most consignment shoppers, it’s the unexpectedness of the find — at the right price of course — that offers the biggest thrill.

Because just about every link in the chain that is consignment reselling benefits in some way, consignment is the business that doesn’t really seem like a business. “On a daily basis we pay out between $300-$600 to folks. That’s money that goes right back into our economy, so in that respect, our business is really great,” Ms. Campbell says. “It also offers high quality merchandise and brands of a higher quality to people that otherwise might not normally find them affordable.”

This doesn’t even account for the items that are donated, which Ms. Campbell estimates, numbered somewhere around 10,000 in the last year. As part of the terms of consigning with Ms. Campbell, clients agree that products with a resale value of $50 or less that haven’t sold within a certain time period will be donated.

As our interview draws to a close, Ms. Campbell tells me that she is grateful to a number of people, especially those who took a chance and consigned with her in the beginning and those who were so kind after the 2009 fire. “It’s just that sense of community,” she says of Whitesburg and its recent renaissance. “I really like it and I love our town. I get excited when a new business open. When other stores open, I’m glad. There’s enough business to go around for everybody.”

A generous spirit, coupled with a first-rate business mind and excellent management skills, have undoubtedly allowed Ms. Campbell to succeed at a time when others have failed. And it’s this ethic and energy that really underscores how she’s done it when she says to me as we conclude, “I’ve worked really long hours and worked hard doing it, but I love it. It doesn’t feel like work, that’s why I love it.” But, she cautions, “You have to work, it is a business; it doesn’t do it for you. When it’s something you really love, you enjoy it. At the end of the day you’re still going to be tired, but if you’re doing what you love, it’s worth it and that’s a good thing.”

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