On 20th Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard is a giant mosaic diamond engagement ring. Is it because Downtown Hollywood, with its canopy of trees and dappled sunlight is so romantic? Maybe.
But look a little further, into the windows of the corner store, and you’ll see real diamond engagement rings — and bracelets and bling and kinds of jewelry just begging for your attention, too.
Those are the wares of Morningstar’s Jewelers, which has made that iconic corner sparkle since 1981, when company president Louis Morningstar moved his Jewelry Store and Pawn Shop from across the street on Tyler and 19th, where it had already been a Hollywood fixture for over 20 years.
And that’s just a fraction of the time the Morningstars have been buying and selling precious and semiprecious stones, jewels, metals and gems. The Morningstar — nee Morgenstern — family has actually been in the jewelry business since Louis’s great grandfather Henry arrived in Mobile, Alabama in 1881.
Today, 138 years later, Henry would surely be proud to know that not only his great grandson but also his great great grandson, Eric, who is now vice president, are carrying on the family business. Along with Louis’s wife Carole, the Morningstars have built the small bauble-trading and money-lending business into one of the most successful and thriving — and longest-running — companies in the city of Hollywood.
At the same time, the Morningstar family has become one of the most well-known and generous benefactors of the Marti Huizenga Club Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County (formerly the Hollywood Boys & Girls Clubs) and other local charities. In fact, the Morningstars are winners of many awards and accolades for their neighbourly spirit and generosity.
We sat down with Louis and Eric to find out more about the business, but what we learned was the fascinating story of a true American Dream Come True.
Hollywood Gazette: So, Louis, Mobile, Alabama? Do tell!
Louis Morningstar: Well, it didn’t really start out there. My great grandfather Henry Morgenstern arrived at Ellis Island in 1851, where they changed his name to Morningstar. He was a lumberman in Germany, but there were no trees in New York except in Central Park and he couldn’t cut them down, so he migrated to the south, doing different jobs and learning different trades. He learned the jewelry business and he ended up in Mobile. He opened the first Morningstar’s Jewelers and Pawnbroking establishment.
He married and had two sons; one was Louie — I’m named after him — and one was Eddie. It was 1870, six years after the Civil War and they were a Jewish family in the heart of the Ku Klux Klan country.
That’s Henry, my great grandfather, in a rocking chair, and that’s Louie, my Great, great uncle, I think. See the three spheres — that’s still the sign for a pawn shop. And look at the wooden sidewalks, with troughs for the horses to drink.
Anyway, my grandfather married my grandmother and they had six children, four boys and two girls, my father was the oldest. They were close to New Orleans so when they got older, my dad and his brother Eddie, who also worked in the store, would go to New Orleans to gamble and carouse around — and they lost the business.
My grandfather died when he was about 38 years old, and my father had to make a living to support his mother and five brothers and sisters.
He knew from working in the stores how to buy gold, so he went door to door, house to house and store to store, buying old gold and selling to refining companies, and trading pocket watches. It was probably the world’s worst way to make a living but he took care of them. He put his brother through MIT and he put his sister through the Boston Conservatory of Music, and since they were both up there in school, the whole family migrated to Boston to be together.
HG: That’s where you’re from, right?
LM: Yup. In Boston, my father met my mother, they had three children and he had two pawn shops. It was during the second world war and all the factories were involved in the war effort, making arms and uniforms and ammunition. But when the soldiers and sailors returned, well, Boston was a big port, and they wanted to bring gifts home with them. So my father was buying black market costume jewelry from the factories in Attleboro and selling them to the men when they got off the ships.
My dad had parlayed all the cash into costume jewelry, but after the war came to a close in 1945, it was worth nothing. Now the people wanted real gold again.
And again, he lost everything. All that jewelry ended up in the garage in our house and it sat there for many years. Until 1954, actually, when we moved to Hollywood.
From 1954 to 1958, while I was in South Broward High School, my dad, in the old fashioned way to make a living, worked out of the trunk of his car, calling on mom and pop stores all over Florida, wheeling and dealing and selling that costume jewelry. Then he’d cut over to Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and cover every little cowtown from here to the panhandle. And every summer for three months I would go with him, carrying the bags from the store to the car from the car to the store and we would stay in $2.50 hotels and motels.
HG: Nobody can say you didn’t earn your success!
LM: Oh, I know both sides of the coin. We didn’t have two nickels to rub together.
So, in 1958, I graduated high school and he was on a trip and I wasn’t with him. He called me from Mobile, Alabama and said “I think I’m having a heart attack, please come and get me.”
I said “I’ll see how quickly I can get there.”
Well, in those days you had to go to Miami to get a plane to Atlanta and then another to Birmingham and another to Mobile and I didn’t know if he’d be in the hospital or dead or in the airport. But he was at the airport and I said do you want me to take you to the hospital and he said no, let’s go home.
So after traveling all day we got in the car and headed straight home and went directly to Memorial where they kept him for a week. Turned out that he did have a heart attack, and the doctors told him that he couldn’t travel any more.
So that was the end of that. And what did he know besides that?
So we opened up little shop across the street there, on 20th avenue and Tyler Street.
HG: The little building that backs up to Anniversary Park, with the mural?
LM: That’s the one. It was owned by a man named Harry Harter. He was from Elkhart, Indiana. He was about six foot six and he wore a suit and tie every day. He was in his 70s back then. He rented us this little store about 12 feet wide by 20 feet deep. We paid $60 a month rent and sometimes we fell four, five, six months in arrears. When we got some money we’d go to the office to pay, and he’d say “thank you, tell your father thank you, I appreciate it, and keep up the good work.”
HG: Sounds like a nice man.
LM: Yes, he was. I’ll never forget him. Now, the First National Bank of Hollywood was across the street, in that beautiful building where Suntrust was. It was a family-owned bank, and my dad and I would talk to them. When we started the business we asked if we could borrow some money, and they asked for collateral.
We had nothing. We need your money to stay in business, we told them. We opened up a pawn shop and we don’t have the money to loan out.
The first loan they gave us was $1000, on my dad’s signature. And from there the story just gets better. At one point, I ended up owing them several million dollars.
But it was a family bank and it was a different time. It was very interesting and you could do things then you couldn’t even dream of now.
Eric Morningstar: Those were the days.
LM: Anyway, we’re in business for a few years there, and Mr. Harter passes away. He was a multi-millionaire, which is like being a billionaire today. And he had no wife and no family, and he left everything to his secretary. She didn’t want his properties. So the bank came to us and asked if we would like to buy the building, and we said sure, how much is it? And they said $43,000 and we said yes, will you lend us the money to buy it? And they said yes.
They loaned us the 42 thousand and we were able to pay the mortgage because we were collecting rents from everyone on the block and we were able to close on the building because we got a check from all the deposits of the renters and that was the beginning of our real estate ventures. We closed on the building with no money down.
As the other businesses would close we’d shift people around and we would take it over, and we would break through the walls and make our own store bigger. Eventually we took over the whole building. It was a very unique store because we took everything, we sold fine jewelry and we also sold bowling balls and sewing machine, guns, fishing equipment, musical instruments — you name it, we did it. Remember, we had the whole block, so we had different sections for everything.
HG: Was that typical for a pawn shop at the time?
LM: Yes, it was. We had price cards like we have now in the windows. We had it all and we grew.
But I always liked this location on the corner. There was another jeweler here, Wesson Jewelers, and they had been here for many years; they were also a father and son and I was friendly with them. They wanted to do a million dollars a year, and they want to expand to a mall to do it. I offered to buy the store, and they said they would never leave that location.
I said okay, but let me know if you change your mind.
One day in 1981, I looked outside, and they had put up a Going Out Of Business sign. They never called me.
I called my father and I said: Dad, you’re not going to believe this. And he said, go over there and get that store whatever you have to do.
Well, whatever they asked, if they wanted a million, I would have done it, because I was afraid that anyone else who might have come in would have been a better competitor than they were. You see, they were the best competitor for us, a one-price store, and we were negotiable. Everybody liked to come in and buy for a better price with us.
So I came over here and I made a deal.
And I wanted to buy the building. A few years earlier, they had redone the facade and the windows, it was beautiful. So I figured they owned the building. But they didn’t. I couldn’t believe they were paying rent!
They sold us all the showcases, wall displays and the rest for only $25,000 — if I had to have had it fitted out, it would have been two, three, $400 thousand dollars! I said sure, I’ll take it. But they were paying rent to the First National Bank of St. Petersburg, the Trust Department, who were running it for the family that owned it.
I told the bank that I wanted to buy the building, but they said no. So I agreed to rent it but I asked for a lease of no less than 20 years. They gave me such a great lease that my lawyers said it was better than owning!
I made the deal, but my dad said, keep hounding them, so I did, and two years go by and I get a call from the bank and they said, ok, you win. You can have the building. I think they found out that they could never sell the building with me in it with that lease!
I asked how much they wanted for the building and she said $250,000. Well, I would have given her $550k if I had to, but I said no no no that’s way too much! Well, that’s the pawnbroker in me! I said, I’ll go $150k, and I don’t have the money, I have to go borrow it. Will you loan to me? She laughed and said no, I can’t loan it to you. We negotiated, we went back and forth and well, I ended up getting the building for $180 thousand.
So I went to my bank and said, I made a great deal but I don’t have the money, you can look, I’m overdrawn. I owe you several millions of dollars. But I need this building and they said, no we have regulations now, you have to come up with 20% and I said but I haven’t got 36 thousand dollars. I had to get on my knees practically but they gave it to me, and I bought the building for nothing down, and my lawyer comes to the closing with me and he gives me a check for $5,000 and I ask ‘what’s this?’ And he says: it’s deposits for everyone in the building.
Now, we moved across the street here in ‘81, and I made a big change in the business. We stopped taking everything, and moved to almost all jewelry.
So that’s the history of the business and from ‘81 ‘til now we’ve had a nice run. I was fortunate.
But it was my dad that had the foresight. He said, someday it’ll happen. Someday you will take in more money than what goes out, and you won’t have to borrow.
HG: Was he alive to see how successful the business has become?
LM: Yes. He lived to be 85, he died in ‘91. We moved to this location on the corner in 1981, so he saw us here for ten years.
We’ve had five generations in the business, so far. My great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, me, and now Eric.
EM: And I have three sons. Maybe one of them, one day, will want to be in it too.
HG: What if none of them do?
LM: Eric will have to decide then — hopefully after they go to college. But they have to make their own decision.
Eric’s sister was also a part owner of the company, but she gave her share to her brother. When she went off to college I never thought she’d never come back, but she practiced in law NYC and they burnt her out. Then she got married, had three children, and chose not to work in the business.
Eric got his undergrad degree in business management in Arizona, then went on to study at the Gemological Institute of America in NYC, the heart of the jewelry business. He holds a certification in Gemology. He grew up in the business and has been working with me for 22 years.
So that’s the story of the Morningstars in Hollywood.
HG: And it’s a great story.
Five Generations. Many locations. Lots of hard times. But always, always, the Morningstars got back on their feet.
Maybe that’s why they give so much. They’re on the board of directors of the Marti Huizenga Club Boys & Girls Clubs, and Carole is a past president. They give generously when asked, of money, time and energy. There’s a playground with their name on it at Temple Sinai in the center of the city. And they charge only five percent or less on their loans, when the law allows them to charge up to 25. Why?
“It’s how we can help people,” said Eric Morningstar. “For many years, people looked down on pawn shops, but we help people that can’t go to a bank, don’t have homes for collateral, who are living paycheck to paycheck. And we work with our clients to help them get their stuff back.”
Going forward, “Papa Lou” is ready let his son take the business into the future.
“Eric is taking the business to the next level,” he noted, adding that he’s been instrumental in building online revenue as well as the collectible watch and diamond markets.
For Lou and Carole, just back from six weeks of boating in the Bahamas, it looks like smooth sailing ahead.
Not bad for the boy who used to schlep the suitcases from the car to the store and back.