Editor's note: This is the first in a series of essays by veteran Phoenix New Times contributor Robrt L. Pela on the people and places that make Phoenix what it is.
On a wall of Michael Strong’s downtown jewelry store hangs a framed photograph of Central Avenue, circa 1932. In the photo, crowds ogle horse-drawn parade floats meandering down the four-lane city street.
“Everybody’s dressed!” Strong said, pointing to the image of these long-ago throngs. “Every man in this picture has a hat on. In New York City, you would put on a shirt and tie even just to ride the subway. All of that is gone now,” he confided. “It’s horrible.”
It was a rare moment for Strong, who opened Michael’s Jewelers in 1954. Grateful to be alive and healthy at 98, he’s not given to outbursts about “the good old days.”
A typical day, he said, is easy. He drives to work from his midtown home, arriving at 7:30 or 8 a.m. “I have my coffee, my music playing. Two or three hours, I can work uninterrupted. I get almost a day’s work at my bench.”
Most days, his wife of 45 years, Judith, joins him. On this day she was in Chandler, spending the day with their grandchildren. “She’s my right arm,” Strong said. “She does everything. The ordering, displays, engraving, bead stringing, all the bookwork. She remembers what you bought for your sister-in-law last year, and she’ll recommend something to go with it, a year later.”
Customers came and went as Strong talked about how downtown has changed. “You’ve been to San Francisco?” he asked a man shopping for a ring. “It’s open 24 hours a day. We had that here! Downtown Phoenix was bustling. What happened here was the town was getting bigger, and everybody wanted to open businesses in Scottsdale, the suburbs, to service those people.” Strong unlocked a jewelry case. “But they didn’t leave anything for people down here. We had Korrick’s, Goldwater’s, The Boston Store. They moved to the malls or they closed down. Now it’s all apartment buildings, my god, a million of them. It’s restaurants and bars. Nightlife.”
Strong shrugged. “That’s great, people are coming downtown again. But it doesn’t do me any good. I’m closed at night.”
He doesn’t like to complain. “I’ve been in business here 64 years. People still come in, some of them I’ve been waiting on 20, 30, 40 years.”
After the war, Strong came here from Manhattan’s east side in 1946. “My first wife was sick with rheumatoid arthritis. The doctor said, ‘Take her to a dry, warm climate.’ He suggested Albuquerque, but that was too hard to spell. Phoenix seemed better.”
The young couple rented a room from a jeweler, who taught Strong to repair watches and broken clasps, how to restring pearls. Eventually, he opened his own trade shop in the old Goodrich building. “I leased a room, $25 a month, brought in my bench, and went to the jewelers around town, and said, ‘This is what I do, what can I do for you?’ And they gave me work,” he remembered. “On the weekends, the Native Americans would put down blankets and sell their wares right off the sidewalk.”
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Strong made good money. “But I got tired of sitting on my ass, to be honest,” he said. “The wheels began to turn and I decided to open my own store. This corner was being remodeled. I rented here.”
Michael’s Jewelers opened on Central Avenue on June 15, 1954. Strong keeps a framed $1 bill, signed by his first customer, a waitress named Doris Stender. “We’ve always done business,” he said. “We have a lot of attorneys working down here, they come to me. I’m a jeweler, not a shopkeeper. So if retail is down, if people shop on Amazon and, what do you call it, the Internet, they’re still bringing me Grandpa’s watch to restore.”
“You’re an institution,” a customer hollered from across the store. Strong laughed.
“People say things like that to you when you’re going to be 99 years old in December,” Strong said. “I don’t think about being an institution. I get up in the morning and I say, ‘I have to go to work today.’”