The History of the Sterlings
Generations of Fort Lauderdale males bought their clothes at Sterling’s.
“I run into people all the time who know me better from the store than from anywhere else,” says Lori Sterling. “And they have fond memories of shopping there. That’s always nice to hear.”
Isadore Sterling emigrated from Russia and spent time in Philadelphia and Palm Beach before arriving in Fort Lauderdale, with his wife and three sons, in 1933. Not long after that, he started his business on Southwest First Avenue – Sterling’s Store for Men – which later grew into an L-shaped building with its main entrance at 27 Wall Street (now West Las Olas Boulevard). The brick building that was in the middle of the L still stands on the corner, facing Las Olas Riverfront.
Originally the store sold only men’s clothing – including workmen’s uniforms – but it eventually expanded to include boys’. Isadore’s sons all went into the clothing business, “in one direction or another” according to Sterling, but it was her father, Morris, who “closely aligned and stuck with his father.”
Isadore was known by everyone as ‘Pop.’ “He was very well dressed,” remembers his granddaughter, “a coat and tie always.” No small feat in the subtropics for a man born in Russia. “He liked to look good.”
He was also a philanthropist – sending packages to soldiers during the Vietnam War – and socially active. “He was a member of almost any club you could be in: Elks, Moose, Masons. He did it all.”
The store was a decidedly family business. “I spent a lot of time there and helped any way I could,” says Sterling. “But I was probably in the way a lot. My mother was very involved as well – the only way she could see my dad,” she adds, laughing. “You know retail. Lots of hours.”
She remembers her grandfather saying, “Let’s go to lunch,” and they’d all walk over to the Governors’ Club. “He’d try to get my father out for a while.”
Her father, too, was “a fantastic dresser. Very fashionable. Very trendy. Not traditional. He was tall – about 6 feet – and very slender, so he could wear anything. He kept himself in really good shape so he would look nice in clothes.”
And he did take time off – four to six weeks – for family vacations “all over the country and everywhere else.” But even these had a professional aspect. “We’d visit clothing factories and men’s stores, taking pictures of windows of famous retailers so he could get ideas for decorating his windows. It wasn’t all we did while on vacation but it was definitely part of the itinerary.”
The travel, and the time spent in the store, gave the daughter a love of men’s clothing – the fabrics, the cuts. “I have a greater appreciation of men’s shoes than of women’s shoes,” she says. “I like the quality of them.”
This fascination proved invaluable in 1976 when her father was murdered in the store by a young man he had hired who badly needed a job. “My father had a big heart,” Sterling says. “He was one of those guys who would pick up hitchhikers, even though my mother urged him not to.”
She and her brother were both in college at the time, and they both “just sort of jumped in,” she recalls. She had a brother-in-law in the clothing business – “on the financial side” – and he remained on for a time. Her mother became involved in the decision-making.
In the ’80s, the family changed the store name to M. Sterling, in honor of Morris. It entered into another expansion, this one designed by architect Don Singer. The boys’ department had become the go-to place for boys’ dress wear. Women’s clothing was also introduced, and a parking lot attendant was hired to ensure the safety of customers. In a 12-month period in the early ’90s, the store was the target of 12 attempted or actual burglaries. One, the night after Hurricane Andrew, resulted in a high-speed chase down I-95, with clothes tossed out the car windows onto the highway.
M. Sterling moved to Las Olas Boulevard in 1993, but the new location wasn’t enough to save it from the rise of discount stores; it closed its doors in 1999. “We had a big closing sale,” Sterling says. “It was sad to move on but you do.”
Sterling did some consulting for other retailers for a while, and then, four years ago, got into realty. Her brother Neil has a software business, working out of his office in Himmarshee Village not far from his grandfather’s original store. He was active in the redevelopment of downtown in the ’80s; he was also a member of the school board for many years.
The city is bigger and more congested than it was in her youth, but Sterling sees the benefits of growth. “When I was in high school I would not think twice about riding my bike to the beach from Rio Vista,” she says. “Fort Lauderdale was a great place to grow up.”
But, she adds: “It was really kind of sleepy. The art museum was a little storefront on Las Olas. When I was a kid there was a family friend who gave art lessons to children, and that’s where we would go.
“The museum of discovery and science was in the King-Cromartie House in the historic district. That’s where I took my youngest son when he was little. I used to volunteer there. Now it’s a world-class institution. To watch all that happen – it’s wonderful to see a community take that route. And all of this was the result of people working hard to see these things come to fruition.”
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