Sonny Morstein is the unoffical mayor of South Baltimore
Published: April 17, 2013
On an unseasonably cold early-spring morning, icy winds whip off the Inner Harbor, blowing errant trash down Federal Hill’s Light Street. A handful of hardy souls hug their coats closer to their bodies as they go about their errands, ducking into Cross Street Market for an early lunch or scurrying past the many deserted storefronts.
Behind a nondescript storefront with a dark-green awning is Morstein’s Jewelers, one of the few Federal Hill businesses that has anchored this neighborhood for more than 100 years. Jules “Sonny” Morstein Jr.—call him Sonny, not Jules—sits at his gunmetal-gray desk near a powerful jeweler’s microscope, ready to start another day selling jewelry, restringing pearls, replacing watch batteries, and most importantly, keeping his family’s legacy alive.
Morstein is practically Federal Hill royalty; the third-generation owner of Morstein’s Jewelers, founded in 1898 by his Russian immigrant grandfather William. Now, 115 years, umpteen wedding bands, diamond earrings, and school rings later, Morstein’s Jewelers is, by Sonny’s claim, the last full-service jewelry store standing in Baltimore City.
Dressed like a preppy in a blue blazer, crisp button-down shirt, and red tie, the 68-year-old Morstein looks more like a private-school don than a man who has sold his share of bling. The only jewelry Sonny wears is a diamond ring that belonged to his father and a Citizen watch from the line he sells in his store.
On this day, the store is quiet, no phones ringing or browsing customers. The only activity is Barbara Singer, Sonny’s assistant of 37 years, who’s fussing with paperwork behind the counter at the rear of the store. On Thursday afternoons, after 69 years, Shirley Wagner, Morstein’s oldest employee, still clocks in for her shift.
During its heyday—roughly 1940 to the early 1960s—Federal Hill (referred to then as South Baltimore), was a thriving shopping district. Cross Street Market supplied food, and department stores and other small businesses lined Light and Charles Streets.
“In the 1940s and 1950s, Light Street was so busy that people waited in line to get into our store,” recalls Morstein of the days before big-box stores, malls, and the internet kneecapped Baltimore’s small businesses. “You had to push your way through the crowds wanting to get into the store. This was the shopping area for the south of the city.”
“Growing up, we called it South Baltimore. There was no Harborplace,” remembers Morstein, who began working in his parent’s store as a teen. One of his first jobs was to keep an eye on the grab bag, a cardboard box filled with wrapped prizes. “For a dollar, you could win a diamond or a TV,” Sonny says. “My job was to tell the customers not to squeeze the prizes.”
“In the old days, nobody left the neighborhood. Your family stayed, your brothers and sisters stayed,” Morstein recalls. Most Federal Hill and South Baltimore residents lived, ate, and shopped within walking distance of their homes. With Sparrow’s Point going full blast and factories operating double shifts, people could afford small luxuries like charm bracelets and gold earrings. Steady employment meant that Federal Hill could support five jewelry stores. In 1953 his father opened Jules for Jewelry, a shop down the street from the original Morstein’s store. For a time, Nancy Boltz, Sonny’s sister, ran a branch of Morstein’s in Baltimore Highlands.
A generation ago, Morstein’s inventory was eclectic. “We were as much an appliance and gift store as a jewelry store,” remembers Sonny. He shows a visitor a yellowed newspaper circular from 1963 advertising Morstein’s many non-jewelry wares. Sonny chuckles, recalling the air conditioners, toasters, lazy Susans, models of wooden ships, Bibles, electric shavers, and bronzed baby shoes Morstein’s sold by the hundreds. “Everyone wanted their baby’s shoes bronzed. You have no idea how many Buxton wallets we sold,” Morstein says. Keeping up with the times, Morstein’s even sold mood rings. “That’s the kind of thing that sold,” Sonny says.
Why stock eclectic shavers? Morstein laughs at the question. “Diamond rings don’t wear out, but shaver heads and TVs do. We sold everything. You hustled.” Morstein’s father’s shotgun approach to retail included shuttering the store at 9 p.m., then heading to a bingo hall in Brooklyn to sell watches.
Today, Morstein’s Jewelers sells the gold wedding bands, diamond engagement rings, girly charm bracelets, chunky men’s rings, crucifixes, jewelry carriers, silver polish, watches, and tchotchkes. Second- and third-generation customers still make the journey to Federal Hill from all over Maryland for wedding rings and jewelry.
Morstein, whom many refer to as the unofficial mayor of Federal Hill, has been generous to the community that has supported his family. He funds an annual $500 scholarship to a graduate of the South Baltimore Learning Center and, in 1992, he let the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter move in above the store, rent free.
“Single-person businesses are the backbone of Federal Hill,” declares Morstein, who, like his father and his sister, served as president of the South Baltimore Business Association. He has led the fight to keep the neighborhood’s remaining small businesses from relocating or shutting down. “We’ve got the best bars and restaurants in the city. But you need a balance.”
He is incensed by a recent proposal from the Baltimore City Parking Authority to raise parking meters from 50 cents to two dollars an hour. Morstein fears the hike would be the final nail in the coffin for struggling businesses. In the last three years, he says, more than 60 local businesses have closed or relocated.
Many worry that Morstein’s may be the next business to close. Sonny Morstein admits that his son has more interest in pursuing a career in music than in taking over the family business.
But for now, Morstein will continue showing up at 9:30 a.m. to open his store. “People like to shop local, and people trust us,” he says. “We’re a tradition. We’ve tried hard to make everyone happy, and we’ve earned their trust.”
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