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.

December 29, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

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."

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