OPINION: End of the line for metro Atlanta sex shop mogul?

Longtime sex shop proprietor Michael Morrison at the Tokyo Valentino store on Cheshire Bridge Road that features his nickname and a bigger-than-life portrait. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

caption arrowCaption
Longtime sex shop proprietor Michael Morrison at the Tokyo Valentino store on Cheshire Bridge Road that features his nickname and a bigger-than-life portrait. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Michael Morrison has spent exactly half of his 52 years as metro Atlanta’s most well-known purveyor of sex toys, lingerie and naughty novelties. He has made and lost — and perhaps made again — a fortune in the business. But now he says he has his sights set on something else: tilapia.

Yes, Atlanta’s Mister Mischievous says he’s looking at diving into fish farming in South America.

“I don’t see much of a future in this business,” he said, sitting in a back office at Tokyo Valentino, the adult business on Cheshire Bridge Road that the city of Atlanta has tried to close for decades.

Morrison, tanned, fit and still cocky (although a bit less than before), sees an industry that made him rich and infamous drying up. The internet has stolen away the lucrative porno tapes and magazines, and people can now buy adult items for home delivery from their living rooms. Stores connected with him in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, North Fulton and Atlanta have all been under withering legal fire.

And he faces 180 days in the DeKalb County slammer after getting beaten in court over Stardust, the now-closed store in Brookhaven.

The stubborn and litigious proprietor has brought in criminal legal whiz Don Samuel in a last-ditch effort to avoid jail time. If the Georgia Supreme Court again declines to hear his plea, he’ll probably be in an orange jumpsuit before the leaves start turning that color.

Last year, a frustrated and annoyed DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Mark Anthony Scott threw the book at Morrison in a contempt of court ruling, saying He. Just. Won’t. Listen!

This is now the fourth time the court has found Morrison’s operation of Stardust to be illegal,” the judge wrote, using italics rather than going ALL CAPS.

Brookhaven’s attorney contends Morrison personally owes the city $420,000 in fines, and whoever owns (or owned) Stardust is on the hook for another $420,000. Morrison insists he doesn’t own, manage or control what used to be Stardust, although Judge Scott has differed with that opinion.

caption arrowCaption
Stardust is located on Buford Highway. (Photo: Channel 2 Action News)

Stardust is located on Buford Highway. (Photo: Channel 2 Action News)

caption arrowCaption
Stardust is located on Buford Highway. (Photo: Channel 2 Action News)

Samuel doesn’t know much about Morrison’s business doings. In 2005 he was brought in to try to get Morrison’s sentence for income tax evasion reduced. Morrison was sentenced to 46 months in prison for skimming money from his lucrative businesses. He was also ordered to repay $1.4 million to the IRS.

Years later, after he got out of prison, sold his businesses, paid his fines and restarted, Morrison again called Samuel because Morrison had been charged with aggravated battery.

“It was a fight with a guy,” Samuel recalls, “in a boxing ring!”

Morrison, who used to co-own the Biggs Morrison Boxing Gym in Midtown with fight trainer Xavier Biggs, was getting angry calls from the boyfriend of a stripper that they both knew.

“So Michael told the guy, ‘Meet me at the boxing ring and we’ll settle it like men,’” said Samuel. “Michael decks him and the guy calls the police saying, ‘I was lured there so he could beat me up.’”

Later the charges were dropped and the man’s civil suit went nowhere. Asked about that, Morrison smiled and said, “Welcome to my life.”

In the current case, Samuel says the judge never informed Morrison that he was to be held criminally liable in the civil case concerning his Brookhaven store. “They never had a sentencing or a sentencing hearing, which is unconscionable,” said Samuel.

The litigation in Brookhaven goes back to after Morrison opened a store on Buford Highway in early 2013. Months earlier, Brookhaven had become a city and Morrison saw opportunity — as in a loophole.

“We look for locations where the (zoning) code doesn’t define what we do” and then open a store, Morrison told me. “That’s no secret.”

caption arrowCaption
Michael Morrison, founder of Tokyo Valentino Erotique, puffing for his store, the site of a two-decade battle with the city. HANDOUT

Michael Morrison, founder of Tokyo Valentino Erotique, puffing for his store, the site of a two-decade battle with the city. HANDOUT

caption arrowCaption
Michael Morrison, founder of Tokyo Valentino Erotique, puffing for his store, the site of a two-decade battle with the city. HANDOUT

The store was near the Pink Pony strip club, which Brookhaven has long fought to close. According to Brookhaven’s ordinance, Morrison’s store was too close to another adult business, as well as being too close to residences.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst says Morrison opened up under a ruse. “He violated zoning laws and then lied through his teeth,” the mayor said.

For Morrison, it was more like gradations of truth. He told me that when he opened the Brookhaven store, he declared that it was “general mercantile — smoking, lingerie, novelty items. Did we have listed that we have some sex toys? No we didn’t.” He said such items are a small portion of the store’s profits.

In the ongoing litigation with Brookhaven, Judge Scott mandated that Stardust be limited to displaying 100 “sexual devices.” However, the judge in his contempt of court order said that three visits from investigators found 120, 130 and over 200 such devices. The judge’s order naming some of the inventory made me blush and wiggle a bit. This being a family newspaper precludes me from listing them.

Morrison, during a tour of the Atlanta store this week, pointed to some velvet handcuffs on display, items he said were counted by the judge as “sexual devices.”

“These are what got me in trouble,” he said. “I guess police supply stores are considered ‘adult.’ It was a bad decision (by the judge). It was an arbitrary amount. We complied. It was designed to put me in jail.”

Jail is not an unfamiliar place for him. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s first story about Morrison was in 1995, detailing Atlanta vice cops carting away blow-up dolls from the “baby-faced” sex shop proprietor’s store. It was then called “9½ Weeks,” after the sultry movie. (The film company made him change it.)

So now Morrison is talking about fish breeding in South America, and the Stardust store in Brookhaven is closed and has been replaced by a vape shop. (That’s progress!)

I asked Brookhaven city attorney Chris Balch if the city can lay off the gas now that Morrison appears to be a beaten fighter.

caption arrowCaption
The Pink Pony is located off Buford Highway in Brookhaven. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

The Pink Pony is located off Buford Highway in Brookhaven. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

caption arrowCaption
The Pink Pony is located off Buford Highway in Brookhaven. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

No, Balch responded. They suspect Morrison is employing Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy, where he’d lay back and take some shots to let his opponent tire himself out.

“I have every confidence that Mr. Morrison will be back and again be a problem for every jurisdiction in the area,” Balch said. “I don’t have the confidence that he believes he lost and will abide by Judge Scott’s ruling.”

Besides, the city has spent at least $640,000 on outside attorney Scott Bergthold, a right-wing religious warrior who has fought against gay issues, according to Project Q Atlanta, a gay-focused publication. Atlanta had hired Bergthold to combat Morrison’s Tokyo Valentino but cut him loose two years ago after his beliefs were made public.

It’s a thorny issue that goes way back. In 1998, then-Fulton State Court Judge Gino Brogdon presided over a case in which a jury of five women and one man found Morrison guilty of obscenity charges. The jury then blasted the “archaic” law in a statement read in open court, saying, “What happens between consenting adults in private should not be legislated by any civil authority.”

Fighting sex shops remains in the DNA of city and county governments, although such battles have moved to zoning, not obscenity laws.

Brogdon this week told me such shops are seen as “seedy.”

“There’s a difference between a sex shop near your home and one across town,” he said. “You go to the one across town. And you want the one across the street closed down.”

About the Author

Editors' Picks