If John Waters and Martha Stewart had a love child who grew up to open a novelty store, J. Miles would be the place. Jerry Miles would be the mongrel.
For some 20 years, Miles has sold the smartest, sassiest T-shirts, toys, and home furnishings in a shop that screams, "Smile, dammit!" His stock includes Hindu finger puppets, hats that bear the "Balding" logo, and T-shirts that read, "Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society." It's all business as usual at a store with a history as interesting as its merchandise.
"In the late '70s, when I was in college, my partner owned a bar," Miles remembers. It was "painfully boring" just sitting around the pub, he says, so he recycled beer cans for a year and used the money to open an outlet specializing in gay media.
A shrewd salesman, Miles broadened his scope in 1980 and moved his business beside an abandoned Art Deco gas station on Las Olas Boulevard. With a teal storefront and eye-catching (sometimes brow-raising) window displays that included toys like plastic piles of dog mess, J. Miles on Las Olas became a local staple, a humorous alternative to the street's highbrow boutiques and galleries.
But in 1996 Miles' landlord evicted him in order to build a restaurant, and owners of other spaces for lease along Las Olas made it clear they had no room for the scintillating shop. Miles moved to a location on East Sunrise Boulevard but soon closed it so he could return home to Dearborn, Michigan, to take care of his father, who was dying of cancer.
Following his dad's death, Miles worked as a traveling wholesale representative, selling to stores throughout Florida instead of directly to customers.
"I hated it," Miles remembers. And so in 1999, with renewed purpose and toys, he returned to Fort Lauderdale and opened his first "outlet" store downtown on Broward Boulevard. It was robbed three times in four weeks.
Then an old customer offered Miles a lease for a space farther east on Broward Boulevard, where Miles is now happily settled. "J. Miles Off Las Olas" still commands customer loyalty, a rarity in transient Fort Lauderdale.
"I'm getting old customers coming in, saying, "You're back!' Kids who were struggling with their sexuality in their teens used to come into my store to feel safe. Now they're coming back in their twenties. That makes me feel good."
From its beer can beginnings to Broward Boulevard, it's been quite a ride for the colorful little store with the red beach chair out front and a window that now permanently reads "Grand Opening! Everything 50% off!"
"It's always a Grand Opening, because I'm constantly restocking the merchandise," Miles says. "Success for me has been the ability to constantly reinvent and re-create this store."
Always open to grand ideas and all people, Jerry Miles is still in business. And he's still smiling, dammit.
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