Detroit Free Press Profiles Locksmith Dave Singh

Singh started working at Bill's Fix-It Shop in the Delray section of Detroit 40 years ago. Today, the business struggles to stay afloat in a blighted neighborhood, but the Indian immigrant still sees it as the American dream.

Jan. 27--After all these years, Dave's still in love.

He's the owner of Bill's Fix-It Shop, an 82-year-old locksmith shop that is one of the last old-fashioned, mom-and-pop businesses left along a strip of Fort Street at the edge of Detroit's Delray neighborhood.

The 70-year-old started working at the shop nearly four decades ago when he was a young immigrant from India named Sukhdev Singh looking for part-time work. He wound up buying the business and sending two kids to college with what he earned. Along the way, customers Americanized him with the name Dave.

The shop is surrounded by blight now. Vandals keep spray-painting their tags all over his walls, as if his business is already dead and abandoned. What money he makes comes a few dollars at a time from a few regulars.

He's the caretaker of a slow business on a dying street in a dead part of the city. And to him, this is still the American Dream.

"I love this country," he said, and will say to anyone who walks in the door. "You work hard and you can have everything."

Patriotic to the core

Singh is so patriotic because of what he left behind to get here. He was the son of a sugarcane farmer in Punjab, and he became convinced early on that it would be impossible for him to have a decent life if he stayed in India, no matter how hard he worked.

He never forgot the man who, for decades, would walk past the Singh family farm to his job at the sugar mill down the road. That could soon be him, he thought.

"Every day, for 20 years, I watched him," he said. "He couldn't even afford to buy a bicycle. So how successful would I have been getting a little job like that?"

He earned a degree in science in India, worked in a laboratory as a chemist, came to Detroit, enrolled in the now-defunct Detroit College of Applied Science in Allen Park and earned a degree in engineering.

Despite that background and schooling, he spent a blue-collar life making keys in a gritty part of the city.

It became a career by chance. One day, during a summer break from school, he saw an ad for a locksmith right by his house in Delray.

It turned out to be a help-wanted ad for Bill's Fix-It Shop, which opened in 1932 as an all-purpose repair shop where people brought their bikes, their guns, metal scales -- anything with parts that needed fixing. Later it became just a bicycle store, and eventually a key shop and locksmith. Singh spent two summers there making keys and fixing locks.

After his student visa expired, he had to leave the country. He moved to Canada, as close as he could be to Detroit, and tried to figure out how to return to his old home for good.

"I used to sit on the river on the other side and think, 'Oh, God, it would be great if I could go back to America,' " he said.

A long memory

As Singh's van rolled slowly down the streets of southwest Detroit on a cold January day, he recalled every job he's done, every customer he's met.

"I have worked in this building," he said, pointing to a grocery store. "I came to this house three times. I opened a car in this parking lot for a lady. I changed the lock on this building. There was a hotel here, and I came five times here. I remember everything."

Singh parked his van back in the dirt lot next to his shop, got out and unlocked the front doors. It's hard to tell the business is still open from the outside, apart from the sight of the overhead lights shining dimly through the cloudy glass of the windows.

Inside, thousands of keys hang from little hooks on the walls. Hundreds of boxes of locks and bolts fill the winding storerooms. An old safe, some well-worn key cutters and bench vises smoothed by years of wear sit where they sat back when he spent those summers working here as a student.

At the end of one of those summers, as he was about to leave for Canada, the owners told him that he was always welcome to work at the key shop if he ever became a citizen.

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