WILDWOOD — Milton Sumner Brown landed at Normandy and fought his way across Europe during World War II.
When he opened his jewelry store here, he framed one of his Purple Hearts on the back wall.
Michael Brown’s father died more than a decade ago, but the son still speaks of the father in the present tense. Milton and Sylvia Brown came to Wildwood in 1950, opening M.S. Brown Jewelers at 3310 Pacific Ave., close to the current location at 3304 Pacific.
The store, which on its website calls itself “the oldest jewelry store in New Jersey,” has survived, even as Wildwood and its Pacific Avenue downtown has changed and changed again. It has survived an ill-conceived attempt to make the downtown a pedestrian-only mall and the subsequent process of tearing up that work years later as traffic returned.
On Sunday, Father’s Day, the store celebrated its 70th anniversary in business, Brown said.
To make it this far, M.S. Brown has had to overcome many challenges — and more await. Brown is resolute.
Sitting in the back of his store, he is careful not to sound denigrating when discussing Wildwood’s downtown. But the issues are obvious. For block after block, Pacific Avenue has almost as many closed businesses as open ones. At one end of his block are multiple vacant or closed buildings, one with lively scenes painted on the plywood over the windows.
At the other end of the block stands Byrne Plaza, the site of a farm market and multiple events each summer, a partnership of public money and private donations that saw the demolition of a long-vacant nightclub and the transformation of the property into a welcoming space.
Nearby are diners, a long-running bookstore and other businesses. Brown said the Byrne Plaza project has brought new life into the neighborhood.
“It’s a beautifully constructed park,” he said.
But he credits the success of his business to something else.
“A lot of our survival has to do with our reputation, which is impeccable,” he said. “My father started it. I maintained it. My daughter will maintain it. That’s why we’re still here.”
Milton Brown was originally from Massachusetts, the son of a shoemaker. He became a master watchmaker before starting the business in Wildwood. It became successful enough that he took in his brother as a partner. They opened a Boardwalk location. In 1972, the two stores separated.
“My father took the avenue and my uncle took the Boardwalk,” Brown said. “Urban renewal came to town, and that was the reason for the split. My uncle didn’t want to be a part of the rebuilding of downtown.”
Michael Brown was born at Burdette Tomlin Hospital, now called Cape Regional Medical Center. He started at the family business when he was 15, before leaving to get a business degree.
He also became a master watchmaker, one of a dwindling number of independent watchmakers in the country. And in 1984, he bought his father’s business.
It was “right before they demolished the street, to make way for the pedestrian mall,” he said. He survived that challenge.
Now, the business is determined to survive the latest challenge, as stores reopen their doors after being closed by executive order because of COVID-19.
During the closure, the store began to concentrate on online sales and sales through Facebook Live, during which they used contests, sales and other promotions to draw customers. Brown also posted a video of himself dismantling, cleaning and repairing a high-end watch, giving customers an inside look at the painstaking process.
“A business has to change,” Brown said.
Still, the store keeps one foot in the past. On a recent weekday morning, customers came in with watches for repair and looking for a diamond ring. Brown went over the options and what they would cost, and spent time explaining the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Brown said his daughter, Jessica Brown, also has become a gem expert and a master jeweler. The store also has a master engraver on staff for trophies and other work.
Being versatile has helped. The popularity of wrist watches has fallen with the rise of the smart phone, and many who do wear a watch buy one for $40 or less and get a new one rather than replace the battery. But there remains a market for high-end watches, Brown said.
“I do everything from simple battery changes to Rolexes and quality watches above Rolexes.” he said. “I was taught the old-fashioned way.”
That includes tearing the watch down completely and cleaning and maintaining each tiny piece during a repair.
After a lifetime in the store, Brown said he can still be surprised.
He told a story about a man who came in to buy a ring on a rainy day years ago. They made a deal, Brown said. Then the man asked about a young couple who was looking at half-karat diamond engagement rings, even though they could not afford one.
As Brown tells the story, the man asked of the young man, “Do you love this lady?” The young man said yes. He asked the woman if she loved the man and received the same answer.
“He bought the ring for them,” Brown said. He would not give the couple his name, saying instead they should just call him Robin Hood. Brown said the couple bought a thank-you card at a neighboring shop for him to deliver to the mystery man. It was addressed to “Robin Hood.”