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Federal Hill jeweler finds the right setting Centennial: As he marks the 100th year of his family's business, Sonny Morstein has established himself asa bona fide South Baltimore leader.


All of South Baltimore came to Morstein's Jewelers' 100th birthday party this fall: Democrats and Republicans. Bar owners and the neighbors who testify against taverns at the liquor board. Federal Hill yuppies who restore their red brick homes and Riverside Park old-timers whose hearts belong to weather-beaten Formstone.

"Only Sonny could draw this crowd," said Del. Timothy D. Murphy. "Some people here can't stand each other. But Sonny is much, much more than a businessman. He's the mayor of South Baltimore, and he's rapidly becoming the patriarch."

At first glance, he seems like a character from a holiday story, not a gritty urban neighborhood. His hair long ago turned opal white. He is a jeweler named Jules. His initials are JEM - for Jules Edward Morstein - the third generation of his family to own the store.

On a peninsula crowded with those who love politics and a good fight, this boosterish, busybody jewelry salesman may well be the most influential figure who has never held public office. When South Baltimore wants to make peace, Jules "Sonny" Morstein gets called. "He is about the best mediator I've ever seen," says 1st District Councilwoman Lois Garey.

When Southern High School erupted in violence in 1994 and again this year, Principal Darline Lyles says, Morstein helped set up meetings to quell the disturbances. When Federal Hill residents fought with businesses over parking, Morstein, as president of the South Baltimore/Federal Hill Marketplace Business Association, engineered a compromise.

In 1992, Morstein let the financially failing South Baltimore Homeless Shelter move in above his jewelry store, rent-free. "Quite simply," says Allison Barlow, president of the shelter's board of directors, "we could not have survived without Sonny."

Morstein's Jewelers has survived 100 years - the last 93 on the same block - on the strength of generosity (Sonny is a notoriously easy mark for school, church and Little League fund-raisers), a strong conservatism about business and a distinctive family stubbornness. Morstein has resisted fads, from mood rings to costume jewelry; and he has eschewed expansion.

The store still has the familiar blue awning and sign, with diagonal display windows on each side of the front door. Behind the back counter - with an old scale and a box of lollipops - are hundreds of yellow receipts of customers who buy on layaway.

Still, the owner is not your old-fashioned, broad-shouldered counter man. At 54, Morstein rides his bicycle up to 60 miles on his day off. On work days, he looks like a lawyer, wearing suits and carrying a briefcase. He has been asked to run for office nearly as often as Colin Powell, but declines, citing a lack of interest.

He's in constant motion, but his business stays put, a diamond-in-the-rough of Light Street. "I don't like change, so I stay here," he says. "With people, I try not to take a hard-line position on anything, and I encourage them to disagree with me. Now I almost take it personally when people don't get along around here."

Sonny Morstein's grandfather, William Morstein, immigrated from Russia in the late 19th century. In 1898, he opened a jewelry, eyeglasses and watch store in East Baltimore. Seven years later, he moved to South Baltimore.

William's sons, David and Jules, eventually took over. By 1939, they had built the largest jewelry shop south of Baltimore Street, and the only one with an air conditioned vault. In 1953, Jules, who is Sonny's father, established a competing store in the same block.

To keep his business visible,

the Jewish jeweler even attended morning Mass with his Catholic customers, earning the nickname "Early Mass Morstein."

Sonny had to help out his father. After graduating from City College, Morstein, an average student, earned a degree in business administration from American University in 1968. He returned to Baltimore, married, and joined the family business.

His best boyhood friend, Elkan Katz, became a lawyer in Philadelphia. Danny Birnbaum, another pal, "is a translator in France," Katz says. "Sonny was the one who stayed home and dedicated himself to Baltimore."

Father and son worked side by side until Jules Sr.'s retirement in 1984. "Until Jules died in 1988, he would come into the store and drive Sonny crazy," says Shirley Wagner, a longtime store worker. "At first, Sonny was pretty laid-back, and I didn't know if he was going to make it. But business, and his father, made him more serious."

Sonny and his older sister and partner, Nancy Boltz, had to become tough. During the 1970s and 1980s, their stretch of Light Street, which once supported five jewelry stores and dozens of other retailers, declined steadily. Business suffered. Epstein's, the hallowed department store at 1105 Light St., closed in 1990. The subsequent opening of the Southside Shopping Center on Fort Avenue delivered another blow to the retail corridor. Sonny's wife, Randi, says that crime became so bad in the late 1980s, she thought of asking her husband to move the business out of his beloved city.

"I would never leave the city," he says. "I own this place. I don't pay any rent. And the kind of good will my family has built here you just can't buy. People can go to sleep every night knowing Morstein's Jewelers will be in South Baltimore."

Still, Morstein has made small changes to keep up with the neighborhood. He added upscale merchandise to appeal to professionals flocking to Federal Hill. He out-sourced his collection business. He stopped letting most people charge their purchases to accounts. He quit selling air conditioners and lazy susans to focus on his "core business": jewelry.

In September 1987, coaxed by other businessmen, Morstein reluctantly took a larger role in neighborhood affairs. He accepted the presidency of South Baltimore's business association.

Over time, he discovered a special gift for compromise. Friends also say that Sonny grew more patient and gentle after his younger son, Eric, died in a 1991 car wreck. Eleven years after taking the business association post, Morstein remains its president.

"Before Sonny became president, we used to communicate only by angry correspondence through city officers," says David Marshall, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. Now, we talk all the time. And he fixes my watch for me."

To be sure, Morstein is an awkward booster, stiff in social settings and hardly immune to criticism. In a recent fight over the expansion of a state enterprise zone, some residents complained that Sonny was supporting business over neighborhood interests. A few locals grumble that he lives not in South Baltimore but near where he grew up in Mount Washington.

Morstein has trumped most criticism with measured generosity. The business association now sponsors half-a-dozen events a year, including a free summer concert in Federal Hill Park. Morstein turned his store's 100th birthday party this fall into a benefit dinner that raised more than $5,000 for the homeless shelter and the South Baltimore Learning Center. Southern District Police Officer Ken Lipman says Morstein persuaded police to boost walking patrols in the neighborhood.

"If you're a cop, and there's anything you need," says Lipman, "you call Sonny."

On occasion, Morstein has proved willing to take unpopular stances in service to the neighborhood. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is so disliked in South Baltimore that the mayor once told a city councilwoman he could "lose to a Republican" there. But Sonny aggressively courted Schmoke, inviting him for tours, calling him at all hours, and praising him.

"He decided he was my friend," says Schmoke, laughing. "Usually, people get mad at me around here, but I've never seen him lose his temper. Sonny is a gem, and he makes it easier for us to work with that area."

At 9 a.m. on a recent Friday, Morstein pulled open the front gate to his store. "Hi, Steve," says Mor

stein to his tennis buddy and insurance agent, Stephen L. Hecht, who is walking into Morstein's Jewelers to have a diamond appraised.

Hecht looks up. "How is the mayor of South Baltimore?"

"Fine," he says, picking up a magnifying glass to examine the stone. "Diamonds are like snowflakes. Every one is a little bit different."

So are Morstein's days, as he shifts constantly between his jobs as jeweler and community activist. Between showing engagement rings, he dictates a letter to M.J. "Jay" Brodie, Baltimore Development Corp. president. State Sen. George Della's office calls to invite him to a 2 p.m. photo shoot at Fort McHenry, just as he gives a refund, and sympathy, to a customer who has lost his job.

As Sonny, magnifying glass in hand, repairs a broken watch, a city official on the phone requires his opinion on a waiver of the urban renewal ordinance. Lunch is a shrimp box bought for a church fund-raiser, after a drive to the post office to pick up stamps.

He's a forgetful sort, so each day is carefully managed by his "bulldogs," a staff of four South Baltimore gals so seasoned that its "rookie," Faye Gruber, has worked for Morstein's 13 years. Gruber and JC Szumlanski, in her 19th year at the store, sell while Shirley Wagner handles payroll - a part-time job she has held for 54 years. His office manager and saleswoman of two decades, Barbara Singer, has a stare that can silence politicians. "I may be small but I'm wiry," she says.

By 6 p.m., the women urge Morstein, as they often do, to close down early: "Put down that [front] gate," they say. But Sonny continues to receive calls: a city planner, the Downtown Partnership, the owner and manager of Sisson's, who wants Sonny to head off a controversy over a 25-foot banner hanging across Light Street.

Morstein says he won't retire until all the Light Street storefronts are full and a new parking lot is built. While tallying up the day's proceeds - 31 items sold, including a couple of $400 bracelets - he boasts about his son Jules III, known as Terry, who works with at-risk children in Colorado.

"My father says he's proud of my work and doesn't expect me to run the business," says Terry, 25. "But I think about coming back. It's hard not to. It's on my mind all the time."

"If we close the door and Terry doesn't want to come back," Sonny says, "we're lucky we had the 100 years. I won't be hurt. I'll be grateful. I'll be "

Barbara Singer cuts in. "Stop talking, Sonny," she says. "Put down that gate!"

Pub Date: 12/29/98

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