- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Locksmiths see life’s twists, turns

One thing is certain: People really, really like to lock things up. Cars. Houses. Locking necessitates unlocking, which requires a key, which you think might be in the pocket of your jeans … which you left on the floor of your bedroom before popping out of the (auto-locking) front door in your boxers to grab the paper.

Enter the locksmiths, who — over years spent aligning the world’s tumblers, duplicating its keys and generally getting folks out of jams — have gained unique insights into humanity and its foibles.

“I would love to write a sitcom,” says Kathy Harrell of District Lock and Hardware Inc. in Southeast, reminiscing about some of the incidents she and her husband, lock-shop manager Steven Harrell, have encountered over the years.

However, John Myers, a locksmith at the store, which describes itself on a business card as “Security specialists since 1946,” isn’t sure some of what he has witnessed is very enlightening. He recalls one late-evening job when he was asked to remove four padlocks from a man who was shackled to the wall, dressed in women’s clothing.

“That was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Also, because the store is called upon to assist the police in what he says are “a lot of evictions,” he has found himself in some threatening situations as well.

“I once was on one side of the door with the police knocking, and I heard a tenant on the other side racking a shotgun.”

He has had to climb up to balconies to get somebody into a home and has had a vodka bottle thrown at his head by a vagrant when trying to secure a vacant lot for the landlord.

“Legally, we can’t protect ourselves,” he notes, recalling that “we lost one of the locksmith community who was shot by a robber in a late-night call that was a setup.”

The store gets up to 16 calls a day for help and charges a minimum $75 for a service call, plus parts and labor. Emergency service is available at all hours.

“The hardest thing is convincing a customer when they have something incredibly expensive and old to deal with,” Mr. Myers says. “A good part of the historical stuff is what I do, such as your old Capitol Hill mortise hardware that fits into a cavity in the door.”

Knowing how to pick locks is a useful skill, he relates, and not one that everybody — not even locksmiths — is good at performing.

“It’s luck and practice. It’s a touch you have,” he says. Locksmiths generally learn from others.

“It’s an art,” Mrs. Harrell says.

“Like cutting a diamond,” Mr. Myers adds.

In the course of ordinary repair work, he does a lot of what he calls “re-keying,” or taking out and substituting cylinders in locks. He once was summoned to the home of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton on Whitehaven Street NW. It was a routine matter, he says, with the lady of the house giving a careful examination to all the items on her bill.

That wasn’t the shop’s only brush with things presidential. Mr. Harrell was called upon by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to create a key for a roll-top desk that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. A specialist in such matters, Mr. Harrell made the key by hand — a “touch” with history that few people ever have.

Locksmiths can spot customers who have had a brush with crime from the locks they choose.

“When people move to [our area in upstate New York] when they come from a big city, they insist on oversecurity. It’s not unusual to see two and sometimes three locks on the door,” says Gary Mangione, who recently retired from the locksmith business his grandfather, Philip Mangione, founded in 1885. “A lot of the locks they request by name we don’t carry.”

These days, Americans are all about security — homeland and at home.

“We lock things more than we did 30 years ago, when we’d leave the door unlocked all night,” says John Becker of Mobile Locksmith Shop, in business for nearly 20 years in Schenectady, N.Y.

“Now, there’s not enough locks on the door. People ask for locks on the door that they don’t understand. They want a high-security lock that nobody can pick and that they can’t get in themselves.”

The U.S. Census Bureau showed 3,787 locksmith firms operating in the nation in 2001, most of which had fewer than five employees. Many locksmith companies in the Albany area have been family-owned for years, evolving from turn-of-the-century shops that offered a multitude of services — such as knife sharpening. Each generation, in turn, has learned how to tackle the era’s new, improved and more technologically sleek security devices.

“A lot of what we’re doing is electronic today,” says Mr. Mangione, who worked with brother Mike and son Gary Jr. “Today, it’s computer stuff. My son handles that.”

Every locksmith has a collection of, er, colorful tales. A popular one involves quarreling couples who, in turn, call to have their home’s locks changed to keep out their partners. Others invariably involve handcuffs or padlocks snapped onto things that no one in a proper state of mind would try to steal.

Vehicle calls can get interesting, as well.

“One time, I opened a car, a black Camry, for a customer. He sits inside and says his key doesn’t work,” Mr. Mangione says. “Turns out his black Camry was two rows over.”

Winter can be an especially busy — and trying — time for locksmiths. It brings a predictable increase in calls to extricate snapped keys from frozen car and house locks. Home lockouts can sting in negative-degree weather, as lock-picking is a no-gloves activity.

Then there are the calls to help motorists back into locked cars.

That are running.

Like when Mr. Becker showed up one wintry day to unlock a car the owner had intended to warm up before travel.

“I asked her what the problem was, and she said the car’s locked and the motor’s running,” Mr. Becker says. “I went back to my truck to get the process started, and my truck was locked. I had to walk back up to the house and say ‘Can I borrow a coat hanger?’”

Staff writer Ann Geracimos contributed to this story.

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