The Atlanta Sex Toy Magnate Who Can't Stop Picking Fights
Michael Morrison used to be a boxer. Now he brawls with zoning boards and tax collectors.
The 52-year-old owner of a small chain of Atlanta-area adult stores is clad in a tight royal blue short-sleeve shirt, partially unbuttoned, with a silver necklace that says "REGRETS" dangling between his pecs. He is regaling me with stories of the expensive legal fights that have defined his life, most of which revolve around selling sex toys and porn. If the city of Atlanta had its way, the store we're sitting in, Tokyo Valentino, would be closed. In fact, it would have never existed in the first place.
And if the nearby city of Brookhaven, Georgia, had its way, Michael S. Morrison would be in jail right now. Instead, he's sitting across from me, temporarily out of sight of the shop's abundant collections of inflatable prostate stimulators, clitoral suction devices, and vibrating cock rings, loudly insisting that he was never in cahoots with the mobster John Gotti Jr.
His Brookhaven store has been shuttered for zoning violations: The city bureaucracy says they carry too many sex toys and too much porn in an area not zoned for an adult business. His Marietta and East Cobb stores had their license revoked for the same reason, although they remain open. (The cities actually paid inspectors to buy double-headed dildos and lesbian pornography, to provide proof in court.) The store we're sitting in is itself in the midst of a fight to stay open.
Morrison sued the city of Atlanta in 2015, a lawsuit that is still ongoing, arguing that its adult business zoning ordinance is overly broad. The statute defines an adult bookstore as "having a significant portion of its stock in trade, books, magazines, and other periodicals, films, videos, or other media or items which are distinguished or characterized by their emphasis on matters depicting, describing or relating to 'specified sexual activities' or 'specified anatomical areas.'" One of Morrison's lawyers, Cary Wiggins, points out that "a medical school textbook shop" could be banned under that regulation.
Morrison has been an Atlanta adult-store kingpin for nearly 25 years now. Not all his legal troubles in that time have been directly related to sex toys, but they've tended to center on sex. He's telling me about Gotti because he says the city of Atlanta mistakenly thought he was negotiating with the mob to buy an iconic Atlanta strip club in the early 2000s.
At the time, Morrison's sex-toy empire numbered 48 stores nationwide. He'd won dozens of legal challenges in Georgia, but this time he lost—not because he was connected with Gotti but for a more mundane reason: He'd filed false income tax returns and failed to pay $1.4 million in taxes. In 2005, he was convicted and sentenced to three years and 10 months in prison. He was incarcerated at the same Florida institution where former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was held. (He calls Noriega "a great fella.")
When Morrison left prison in 2008, he decided to sell all his stores except this one, the flagship shop on Cheshire Bridge Road—a street known as Atlanta's vice den because it's full of strip clubs and massage parlors. But now he's trying to rebuild his empire while avoiding more time behind bars.
On May 28, 2020, however, a judge in the Superior Court of DeKalb County sentenced Morrison to six months in jail "because the Stardust store allegedly sold somewhere between 70 and 100 more sexual devices than it should have," according to the appellants' brief filed by Morrison's lawyers. Morrison, the court claims, was operating his Brookhaven Stardust store in violation of a 2019 motion for contempt that had ordered him to pay $210,000 of the $863,000 in fines that the city had levied against Stardust and Morrison since 2017 for selling too many vibrators and dildos without the proper sexually oriented business license. As his lawyers wrote in the brief, "A fair minded citizen might ask how society was harmed when Stardust offered a slightly wider variety of adult toys and sundries at its store than the local code permitted. That is not exactly the crime of the century and certainly was not a violent act."
The city's ordinance defines the term "sexual device shop" as follows: "a commercial establishment that regularly features sexual devices. This definition shall not be construed to include any pharmacy, drug store, medical clinic, or any establishment primarily dedicated to providing medical or healthcare products or services." Under the Superior Court's injunction order, his Brookhaven location could carry a maximum of 100 sexual devices. Morrison says he reduced the number of sex toys in the store from about 4,000 to 100 after he was first cited, but the city claims he has 70–100 more than that. They've been fighting over what the definition of sex toy is: Brookhaven claimed in court earlier this year that an enema kit with a knobby applicator counts as a sex toy because it could provide pleasure, while Morrison's attorneys argued it was no different than an enema you might find at a drugstore. The city also claimed that masks and red collars were sex devices. As Morrison's lawyers wrote in their federal appeal brief, "There is an elephant in the room: the SOB [sexually-oriented business] Ordinance allows the undefined 'drug store' to display 10,000 sexual devices without SOB restrictions, while it imposes restrictions (including criminal penalties) on a business which displays two or more sexual devices but which does not sell drugs."
This is the most extreme of Morrison's recent legal squabbles (there are currently legal battles relating to four of his stores), but these fights started a quarter of a century ago. In that time, the city of Atlanta and surrounding suburbs have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to regulate Morrison out of existence. Many of the adult ordinances that currently exist in the area have been created or shaped to prevent Morrison from operating his stores. But Morrison, a professionally trained boxer, has always been one to fight back and fight hard.
The Family Business
Morrison is a rarity: a second-generation sex-toy store owner. His father was one of the sex-toy pioneers of the 1960s—guys who faced constant obscenity charges and who really did pal around with the mob. (Morrison tells me his dad had to get loans through a mobster nicknamed "Matty the Horse" who ran peep shows in Times Square, because banks wouldn't lend to people in the sex-toy business.) Morrison's father owned several sex shops in the L.A. area in the 1960s and 1970s. As a kid, he remembers holding his dad's hand and "going on his warehouse runs," where he saw "old Latina ladies that were painting the veins on dicks."
But Morrison's relationship with his father was complicated. His dad cheated on his mom and then blamed the boy for making his mother unhappy.
When Morrison was 16, he robbed a bank at gunpoint. "I made some bad choices," he says. "My dad was a big strong guy who hung out on the racetrack. I pretty much grew up at the horse races, so everyone I saw was kind of a knock-around guy. I thought, 'Wow, this looks pretty cool,' and it wasn't. It was a terrible idea."
At this point I'm sitting in the passenger seat of his Jeep, which is adorned with a TOKYO 2 license plate, as we zoom down I-75 to his store in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs. He's telling me that the investigators were surprised a teenager had committed the robbery because it was so sophisticated. Yet it made sense: His father had been a bank robber as well.
Morrison spent about four years in juvenile detention, where he learned how to box. When he got out, he moved to Atlanta to escape his criminal past and make a name for himself outside of his father's shadow. He studied business at Oglethorpe University, and as a senior, in 1995, he opened the doors to his first adult store. At first he saw it merely as a side gig—something to help pay his tuition.
In those days there weren't any real sex-toy stores in Atlanta. "There were stores that would have some sex toys in the back, and if you knew who to talk to with a wink and a nod they would sell you a sex toy," he says. "When I opened up, I thought, 'I'm gonna do this openly,' because what I don't want to do is sit in front of a jury and have to explain why we're doing something secretive. So we put [our sex toys] on the shelf."
Four months after he opened the store, the cops raided it, seizing blow-up dolls and charging Morrison with two counts of distributing obscene materials made to stimulate human genitals. He was set to graduate from Oglethorpe the next day. The raid caused him to miss the rehearsal, and the arrest was splashed across the local news. Although Morrison had come to Atlanta to escape his past, he soon became infamous on the East Coast as well. "It was a little terrifying," he says. But he won the case.
Most people would have decided to leave the sex-toy business after that. Morrison decided to do the opposite. He opened more stores around the city, causing controversy wherever he went. "We fought probably one case a month for the next couple years," he says. Yet he also explored his love of boxing, opening the Biggs-Morrison boxing gym in Atlanta in 1997 and later competing in amateur Golden Gloves tournaments. (He lost his last tournament for the state championship.)
Selling, renting, or giving away sex toys was illegal in Georgia at the time. (In Sandy Springs, such devices remained illegal until 2018.) Morrison became a target. During a 1996 hearing about a store Morrison wanted to open, Fulton County Commissioner Tom Lowe said the business district could use "a first-class funeral and two or three fires." Later in the day, Morrison says he found this note taped to his red Ferrari: "Dead Men don't open smut shops!!…The community doesn't want you hear [sic]. Let's see if Jesus wants you!!! We will previale [sic] in the name of Christ and Decency."
Morrison didn't mind the attention. "We open up a store, and right away we get tons of publicity," he says. "Now that person who normally wouldn't know where our store is is like, 'I'm gonna go down there before they close.'"
Morrison submitted his application to open Tokyo Valentino on December 2, 1996—the same day a new adult-business ordinance went into effect in Atlanta. The store where I met him would not have existed if he had turned it in five hours later.
The city said, "'You're trying to circumvent the rules,'" Morrison says. "And I said, 'Well, that's exactly what I'm doing. You're about to change it. There's nothing illegal about that.'" A judge agreed, ruling that Morrison could open.
When the store opened in 1998, it was initially called Insurrection—an appropriate name for a place that the city tried to put down. In the store's bottom floor, Morrison installed video booths: spots where customers could pay a quarter to watch a porn movie for a few minutes, depositing coin after coin as they masturbated. Soon the lower level became a gay hangout space as well. Now, on Fridays and Saturdays, straight swingers come there to hook up too. That floor is one of the reasons Morrison's store is considered an LGBT landmark in Atlanta.
It's a "gay institution, a safe place for gay folks," he says. "Is it a self-serving argument? Of course it is. There's no question about that. But if it still accomplishes a greater good for the gay community," then it's a win.
In 2014, Morrison spruced up Insurrection's facade, added cedar paneling to the exterior, began working on interior renovations, and changed the store's name to Tokyo Valentino. The city of Atlanta sent inspectors, who determined that Morrison didn't have the right construction permits. They also claimed to discover the existence of those video booths, 16 years after Morrison says he installed them.
The city tried to shut down the video booths in 2014, citing a zoning violation. Morrison sued in 2015. In 2016, the city hired lawyer Scott Bergthold, a Tennessee-based graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University who has spent decades crisscrossing the country helping cities shut down strip clubs and adult bookstores. "Our focus is not on the moral decay in America, but rather the tangible effects of the moral decay, which local governments are quick to recognize—an increase in crimes, lower property values leading to lower tax revenues, and health and safety issues like the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases," Bergthold told Christianity Today in 1999.
There is no serious evidence that sex-toy stores lead to an increase in crime or lower property values, and obviously they do not spread AIDS. Indeed, by offering substitutes for sex with a partner, they may well have slowed the disease's spread. Yet sexually oriented business ordinances are usually justified by the supposed "secondary effects" that sex-toy stores and strip clubs will have on a community, which allegedly include everything from littering to human trafficking. No evidence exists that buying dildos is the gateway to selling people into slavery, of course, but the justifications persist.
In April 2017, Bergthold began arguing that all of Tokyo Valentino was in violation of Atlanta's zoning laws.
"Scott was asking the court to declare that Michael's entire business from the basement to the ceiling was illegal and that it should be shut down in total," Wiggins says. "Which was infuriating to me, because before Scott was brought into the city law department, we were on our way to working out a resolution."
In 2018, the District Court ruled in favor of the city. Morrison then appealed to the 11th Circuit Court, which reinstated the case. It got sent back to the Atlanta court, and the judge again sided with the city. Now Morrison's lawyers are appealing the case again. In the midst of this, in 2019, Atlanta fired Bergthold, though the lawyer continues to work for the nearby cities of Brookhaven and Gwinnett. (It's unclear why he was dismissed, but it may be because a local LGBT publication, Project Q, outed him as anti-gay in April 2019.)
The Tokyo Valentino Experience
I toured four of Morrison's six stores with him. They're all pretty upscale for adult stores. His East Cobb shop is located near a Whole Foods, which is intentional. "We like to be by organic grocery stores," he says. That means the shoppers in the area have "expendable income" and are "liberal and more educated."
At Tokyo Valentino, he peacocks through the aisles in tight yellow pants and white Asics, biceps popping out of his shirtsleeves. It's 1 p.m., and the store is mostly empty of people—just a handful of couples browsing the dildos and lube. He's clearly proud of the store, which is clean, well-lit, and full of hundreds of boxed vibrators, perfectly lined up next to each other as if this were an erotic supermarket—which it kind of is.
Everything in his stores is calibrated perfectly. They have to be 10 times as clean and inviting as a Macy's, he says, because customers might feel shame in a "dirty bookstore," and the last thing you want is for the store to be actually dirty. In the Midtown Atlanta store, Morrison noticed a tiny scrap of paper errantly leaning against a shelf of dildos, frowned, and fastidiously pocketed it.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Morrison hires fire eaters, stilt walkers, and bondage enthusiasts to walk the aisles of Tokyo Valentino, entertaining guests. "You can buy our goods cheaper elsewhere, we won't deny that," he tells me. "You're coming for the experience."
Not all experiences are welcome, however. As we walk by a sex doll reclining on a $1,795.95 red bondage platform in garters, a bra, and crotchless underwear, he tells me that a homeless man once dragged her into a back room and had sex with her. Morrison called the police, who arrested the interloper.
The store is maze-like, with room after room arranged by genre. In one, the centerpiece is a display of imitation women's body parts packaged with slogans like "ribbed canal for extra stimulation."
Morrison tells me sales have increased since the pandemic. ("The stimulus money was spent on rubber dicks," he jokes.) His bestsellers are Jack Rabbit vibrators, although he says that "the B&D stuff has done really well" thanks to the influence of Fifty Shades of Grey.
He escorts me outside, explaining that the Tokyo Valentino experience happens before you even enter the store. There are security guards positioned out front at night to make female shoppers feel safe, the sign is brightly lit, and the windows aren't blacked out.
"A lot of times [the security guard] wants to be inside," Morrison says. "He says, 'Mike, people don't steal outside.' I said, 'Brother, you're a flag is what you are. People see you, it says it's safe.' You know, Susie White Girl comes by," and she can be confident "that she's not going to get jumped."
Within a half-mile radius, there are about 10 brothels/massage parlors and multiple strip clubs. They've had some legal troubles, but nothing like Morrison's. I can't help but think that it is Morrison himself—and the pride he takes in his stores—that has caused the authorities to target him.
Or maybe it was those video booths and the gay clientele.
"I've had the City Council say, 'People are having sex there,'" Morrison tells me. "I'm like, 'Listen, if you go to the Home Depot bathroom, you will see people having sex. If you go on Grindr, that's one of the hookup spots. So would you rather have people at Home Depot, where kids go, having sex in the bathroom? Or here?'"
Morrison's fight is far from over. Perhaps it never will be. "Mr. Morrison chose to lie about his intent and the purpose of his business and placed a new sexually oriented business immediately next door to an existing sexually oriented business," says Joe Gebbia, Brookhaven's mayor pro tem. "He basically said to the city on his opening day, 'I don't care what your rules are for operating a business in Brookhaven, I'm going to do what I want to do.'"
Morrison has no plans to start complying with the codes—at least not the ones he considers unconstitutional. He thinks he'll win his appeals relating to the Atlanta, Brookhaven, and Marietta stores. In Marietta, where his business license was revoked for selling too many sex toys, Morrison's attorneys have filed a federal lawsuit alleging, among other things, that Morrison's First Amendment rights were violated when they revoked his sign permit. "We'll get this thing rectified," he says. "At the end of the day, [Brookhaven] will have spent a million dollars to fight something where ultimately they lost."
But now he has another fight. On September 8, Cobb County amended an ordinance in its adult entertainment code so that any store carrying 100 or more sexual devices is considered an adult store. (It used to be only if more than 25 percent of the space in the store was devoted to sex toys.) Shops also have to be even farther away from churches or schools.
The ordinance appears to have been crafted to drive Morrison out of East Cobb, something resident petitions and the previous laws were unable to do. (In the wake of the new ordinance, his store is allowed to remain open until the end of October, when there will be a hearing.)
"You'll never see my stores next to schools or churches or things, because that's part of the code," Morrison says. But there's another reason, which shows how unnecessary such laws really are: "Am I really gonna find customers right next to a church?"