A Vintage Town Treasure
Writer / Rebecca Wood Photography // JJ Kaplan
In 1945, Zionsville was a sleepy farm town. The downtown was all but forgotten. Few would consider Zionsville a destination spot, let alone a coveted residential area. Despite the lackluster environment, Marshall and Mary Jane Brown opted to start a business in the heart of the Village.
From their home along 5th Street, the Browns opened up an antique store in their backyard. Over the course of the next several years, they worked hard to grow a successful business while also building up the neighboring community. Marshall collaborated with other business leaders to revamp downtown Zionsville.
By the ‘70s and ‘80s, the downtown was revitalized and vibrant. Bordering homes underwent renovations. New families and neighborhoods moved into the community. The school system morphed into a competitive education option. The little gift shops that once flanked Zionsville’s red brick downtown were replaced with higher-end art galleries, shops and restaurants.
The improvements and progress continued for the next several decades and into today. Downtown Zionsville is now considered an attractive destination for shoppers and tourist alike. Mary Jane and Marshall’s store, Brown’s on 5th, is still a fixture among Village guests.
Brown’s on 5th is located five blocks away from the heart of downtown Zionsville. The store is tucked between quaint, vintage homes within the Village. At first glance, one would mistake it for just another of the historic houses that sit along the street. But on closer inspection, the business sign out front reveals its true identity to visitors.
In its 72 years of operations, many aspects of the business have stayed the same with some minor changes made along the way. The business is still family-owned and operated from the same location. David Brown, the Brown’s son, is the current owner.
The store’s offerings continue to be primarily antiques, gifts and novelty items. Items originate from the 19th century to mid-1950s. A few years ago, David expanded the inventory to include a large collection of lampshades with an accompanying lampshade repair business. The business has the largest selection of replacement lampshades in Indiana.
Brown’s on 5th is the oldest established business in Zionsville. Keeping a business afloat for that length of time is no easy feat.
“You’ve got to put in the time 24/7 if you want to be successful,” says David. “You can’t put things on autopilot. You have to have the desire to work really, really hard. One of the reasons we are successful, even though we are off the beaten path, is that we have been open every day since 1945.”
He says this hard work ethic has helped his business weather the storms of a changing economic environment and business climate. According to David, the antique business was booming in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Within the last several decades, the antiques business has languished. Only two antique stores remain in Zionsville today. However, he credits shows like “Fixer Upper” to exposing a new generation to antiques.
The advent of the Internet created added challenges for small businesses. Although Brown’s on 5th does have some online purchasing options, David encourages customers to walk through the doors.
“People don’t want to go into stores,” he contends. “I tell people while they can buy online, it is easier and a much better experience in person.”
David says the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce is active in promoting larger economic development, but he hopes they continue to advocate for the “best-kept secrets in Zionsville.” To encourage Zionsville’s small business traffic, he has visions of Zionsville creating a stronger, more visible visitor’s center. (Zionsville’s current visitor’s center is housed in the SullivanMunce Cultural Center.)
In David’s lifetime, he has witnessed the town’s explosion of growth. Zionsville has blossomed from a population of 2,000 to 25,000. He loves that the town has attracted so many young people.
“I’ve never loved Zionsville more,” asserts David. “People come from all over the country and world to live here. It is not your typical suburban community. We have worked hard to preserve the small-town atmosphere.”
David adores his job and hopes to continue his business for years to come. He believes that if he does his job, hopefully, the business will continue to operate for many years to come.
As for his hometown, David foresees a bright future. “I see nothing but great stuff for Zionsville,” he asserts. “People don’t want Zionsville to be another Fishers. We have something special and unique. We need to protect what people love about this community.”