Time has a funny way of bringing you down to earth. I turned 55 this year and suddenly realized I have been working full time for the same locksmith distributor for 33 years and even more if you count when my dad brought me, the little kid, to work to “help him.” I am one of many in the locksmith industry who worked for their fathers and lived through the turbulent changes of the last few decades.
My dad started in the locksmith distribution business seven months after he was married, in February, 1956, almost a year before I was born. Like so many men in the locksmith distribution business, he started as a young man and I eventually did the same. My father, now 80, has lived almost his whole life as I have mine, tethered to the locksmith industry.
Fifty-six years ago, Milt Goldman wrote an ad in the Detroit Free Press in the “Situation Wanted” section, announcing that a “Young Veteran, 24, seeks position, is willing to learn and advance.” On a Sunday in February, 1956, a phone call came from Joe Falk, owner of Hardware Sales and Supply Company, a wholesale distributor of locksmith supplies. He asked my dad to come to his house that day for an interview. Desperate for help, Joe hired my dad immediately. My dad started in the back of the small Detroit warehouse, in shipping, and after a week, got a $5 weekly raise, which was a sign of respect and gratitude and the last raise he got for a very long time.
Hardware Sales and Supply was a small distributor in the 50s and 60s, selling builders’ hardware, key blanks, night latches, die cast rim cylinders, padlocks, door checks, key machines, and hardware specialties from Independent Lock Company, Lockwood Hardware, and others.
My dad told me that locksmiths, before Bill Zipf Sr. introduced .005 pins and pin charts, used pins in nine different lengths and filed them down. He remembers when locksmiths, covered in black graphite, were just repairmen who didn’t charge much for service calls and rarely suggested security upgrades.
My dad was an intense, dedicated, hard-working employee who really cared about Joe and his company. Joe, intelligent, creative (he was also a jazz saxophonist), classy and kind, became a second father to my dad. Joe felt the pressures of keeping the company afloat and once suffered a heart attack right at his desk. He, his wife Hortense, and daughter Nancy, escaped the stress of business by spending winters in Florida. My father was willing and able to run the business and Joe depended on my dad.
Hardware Sales came close to declaring bankruptcy in the 1960s, barely surviving from one customer payment to the next. My father learned the importance of opening the mail, hoping there were orders and checks to keep the bank away. Hardware Sales wasn’t my dad’s company then but he worked as if it were. Joe had saved my dad from unemployment and my dad worked as many hours as necessary to save Joe from bankruptcy.
The business was floundering but Joe found a run-down but larger building close to three expressways that he thought might help. It was on Grand River, one of the major avenues of Detroit, next to the Wonder Bread factory. The year was 1968, one year after the Detroit riots, the same year of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s deaths, during the same week as the Detroit-St. Louis World Series which Detroit won, four games to three.
I spent some time as a child at Hardware Sales, once when I was three years old, helping to publish its first catalog in 1960 which required stacking each copied page together. I was directed to walk around the room, holding each page in sequence, so it could be stitched together into one binder. A few years later, I worked part-time, putting stock away, picking orders, and shipping them out. I didn’t know where anything went but my dad directed me to find keys, padlocks, latches, or anything a customer needed. I remember organizing the key blank shelves, placing boxes of Ilco, Taylor, and Dominion keys in their right places on the shelves. Often, I’d go to a room filled with keyblanks and pull a case of Ford ignition keys or General Motors A and B.
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