Stranded? Local locksmith's your new best friend

Aug. 31, 2011

Aug. 28--Lock yourself out of your vehicle and be prepared to experience the five stages of death.

First there's denial, as in, "I didn't just do that."

Then comes anger, often expressed as, "#$%^&*."

This is followed by heartfelt bargaining. "If the vent window is unlocked, I'll never miss church again."

When the vent window doesn't budge, depression sets in. Finally, there's acceptance.

What to do now?

Well, you can fiddle around with a wire clothes hanger and risk taking out an eye. Or you can do what more than 430 people already have done this year -- call Browns Lock and Safe, LLC.

Since 1950, the family-owned Charlottesville business has been helping people secure their stuff. They also stay busy unsecuring it.

Because a closure calamity at home or on the road can strike at any time, Browns offers 24-hour emergency service. Find yourself on the outside looking in and you're likely to meet Daniel McSwain Brown, son of the founder and lock picker extraordinaire.

"You can't really hire somebody to be on call night and day," Brown said with an easy chuckle. "Nobody will do that except an owner.

"When people get off work they want to go home, sit in front of the TV and drink a beer. Once you do that, you can't go out and meet your customers, or go driving somewhere.

"So I don't get to have a beer. But I've been doing this for so long that I like it. And it feels good to be able to help someone out of a situation like that."

According to David Lowell, executive director of Associated Locksmiths of America, having a dedicated locksmith like Brown ready to ride to the rescue regardless of the time is a real blessing.

"Offering 24-hour emergency service is not as easy as it sounds," Lowell said via telephone from his Dallas office. "The ability for someone in a jam to be able to get somebody to come out and help them in the middle of the night is an unusual thing.

"Short of the police or fire department, there's not many other services that offer that. I owned Phoenix Security Centers in Phoenix for about 30 years, so I know people can get themselves into some unusual circumstances.

"A person might walk out of the house to get the morning newspaper and the door locks behind them. Of course, they're in their bathrobe or something, and that's an emergency for them.

"That's why we encourage people to build a relationship with a locksmith before the emergency happens. Then you already have the confidence that somebody is going to come out and help you and not take advantage of the situation."

Browns Lock and Safe was founded in 1950 by Stewart Kelvin Brown Jr., and his wife, Margaret Brown. The first shop was just off Main Street, and in addition to making keys and opening stubborn locks, Mr. Brown also repaired guns and watches and traded horses.

By 1965 the business was located in the University Shopping Center. The nation was going through big changes, and so was the locksmithing industry.

"In 1965 my father moved the business primarily to locks and the security business," Dan Brown said of his dad, who stayed active in the business until shortly before his death in 1999 at the age of 80.

"I've been around the business all my life, so it was a natural thing for me to do. I got into it full time in 1977, and it has changed tremendously since then.

"Most of our business now has to do with electronic security for schools and companies. Back when I started, you'd put a deadbolt on a door and that would be that.

"Now, of our seven field technicians, only two are dedicated to the old-fashioned locksmithing, and the other five work with electronic security. My brother, Stewart Kelvin Brown III, is very good at bidding jobs, and because of that we have been able to weather this economic downturn without having to let anybody go."

Dan Brown's specialty is picking locks and helping people get back into their vehicles or homes. Ironically, the company's current location at 210 W. Market St. came about because of a locked-out situation.

"In 1970 my dad was called out one night by a Realtor to unlock the front door here, because he had lost the key," Brown said. "At the time, my dad was renting a shop and was looking for his own building.

"The Realtor had a copy of the sale agreement with him, and my dad signed it right them and bought the building."

Locks and keys have been around for at least 4,000 years, and locked-out situations nearly as long. Rare is the person who has not stood keyless before an uncaring lock.

"I've tried to make sense out of it, but I never can," Brown said with a shake of his head. "It seems to happen a lot when it's raining heavy.

"I know a person is much more likely to lock themselves out of their vehicle than their house or office building. I don't know why that is, either.

"There's any number of ways it happens. I like the ones where a dog is inside the car and is so happy to see the owner coming back that he jumps up and pushes down the door lock. Of course, the key is in the ignition."

Brown keeps a computer record of his lockout calls. His best year recently was 2007, when he responded to 1,147 calls.

The following year he made 1,116 calls, and in 2009 there were 812. Things picked up a bit in 2010, with 831 rescues handled.

Even Brown isn't immune to the curse of the lock.

"Yes, I've done it too," Brown said with a hearty laugh. "I had a date one night, and after I brought her back home, I walked her up to the front door.

"When I got back to my car, I realized I had locked myself out. When I told her what I had done, she thought I was trying to stay the night.

"I went through a kitchen drawer and found a fork and a hairpin to pick the lock with. I tried my best, but it just wouldn't go. I didn't want to get my father out of bed, so I called our competitor.

"Ricky Rebory of Ace Lock [and Security] came over and asked me if I wanted to do the honors. He handed me a pair of lock picks and I unlocked my car. Bless his heart, he didn't want to charge me.

"I made him take the money. It was silencer money, but I went and told everybody about it anyway."

Brown said that, given enough time, he can get into just about anything. That said, it once took him nearly two hours to pick the lock of a Mercedes-Benz.

On another occasion when faced with a new-style car lock, and with a baby inside the vehicle, he ended up knocking a window out with an ax -- no charge.

"I could have figured out how to get the car open if I had more time," Brown said. "But with the baby in it, the woman told me to just break the glass.

"Some cars can't be opened, so you have to fish the keys out," Brown said. "If the key is in the ignition, I can take a long tool and reach in and grab it and bring it out through the window stripping.

"Sometimes I have to go through a vent. I also might use a pump wedge to pry a door open just enough to get a tool in to push up a lock or whatever."

If Brown has a favorite job, it's getting into a locked box that hasn't been open for a long time. Some years ago a man brought a locked strong box into the shop that had belonged to his deceased father.

"It was a little metal strong box that probably hadn't been open for 40 years," Brown said. "When I got it open we saw it was filled, packed tight, with gold coins.

"In fact, that's why the key wouldn't work. There was so much gold inside pressing up against the lock that it wouldn't allow the cam to function.

"This was back in the day when gold was probably [less than] $200 an ounce, but the man was delighted. I think we charged him $5 to get the box open."

That was a case where a spare key wouldn't have helped. But having a spare key hid somewhere accessible on a vehicle or outside the home can be worth its weight in gold -- even at today's prices.

Still, all the precautions in the world can't guarantee you'll never have to call a locksmith. Lowell recommends people go to the website to find a reputable locksmith in their area.

Brown has a suggestion as well.

"You might want to write my phone number on the window of your car and house with a Magic Marker," Brown said. "It's 295-2171."

Copyright 2011 - The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va.