Volume 79, Number 28 | December 16 - 22 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas

Philip Mortillaro, owner of Greenwich Locksmiths.

Perfectionism is the key to a locksmith’s success

By Thomas Chan

Greenwich Locksmiths is not a hardware store with keys.

“We don’t sell toasters. We don’t sell lamps,” Philip Mortillaro emphatically stated on a recent evening. “We’re locksmiths.”

Next April marks Mortillaro’s 30th year running Greenwich Locksmiths. As Mortillaro likes to brag, he is one of the few remaining tradesmen in gentrified Greenwich Village.

It only takes a few minutes for Mortillaro to cut a key. But the cut has to be accurate within the width of two sheets of paper, Mortillaro said.

“Something about locksmithing that attracts anal-compulsive people,” said Norman Saul, a former co-worker of Mortillaro’s. “Those are all the good locksmiths.”

Most of the machines he uses are essentially metal-cutting saws attached to a lever. To cut each ridge, Mortillaro, who calls himself a perfectionist, locks the key in place under the saw. He then pulls the lever hard, creating the sound of metal being grinded. When the cuts are finished, he uses a motorized metal brush to file away metal spurs left on the key.

The process sends metal dust and splinters all over the workbench and his hands. By the end of the day, his muscular, arthritic hands are dark gray from all the dust.

After making the cuts, he places the key on an anvil and a metal stamp on the bow — the top half of the key. Then with a swing of a hammer, he pounds the stamp and imprints the key with the words “Greenwich Locksmiths.”

“You know it’s going to be done right,” said customer Monty Diamond, 63, after buying a key on a recent Friday evening. “He must be good, when little places are closing.”

Mortillaro, 58, got his start as a locksmith when he was 14, more than 40 years ago. His first job was at Reimer Locksmiths in Midtown. He learned the trade by doing: watching the other locksmiths, going with them on service calls and cutting keys.

“It was like a toy store,” Mortillaro said. He enjoyed using his hands and operating the heavy machinery Reimer housed. “You felt like you were in a James Bond movie.”

He never graduated from elementary school, choosing instead to learn the locksmithing trade. At age 20, he started a shop in Union Square, which he later sold. Before opening Greenwich Locksmiths in 1970, he worked for other shops for a few years.

Now he spends his weekdays in his shop on Seventh Ave., cutting keys, repairing locks and coordinating his four employees. Mortillaro said he prefers to stay in the shop now and leave service calls to his employees.

“I’m getting old, man,” Mortillaro said with a chuckle. “The guys will bring me everything.”

“Phil’s the only one that inspired me to be better than I was,” said Jerry Giamanco, who has worked in locksmith shops around New York for 25 years. “Look at the stuff in the window. My God, no one’s got that.”

His shop is a cramped 125-square-foot space. It barely fits its owner, another worker, his merchandise and one, maybe two, customers.

A collection of historic padlocks and keys sits in the window: a key to the city marked “Mayor Robert F. Wagner,” padlocks with the names of defunct railroad companies, old-fashioned skeleton keys.

Hundreds of uncut keys hang above the crowded workbenches: long keys, short keys, brass keys, nickel keys, skeleton keys. They cover the walls above a workbench crowded with his metalworking machines.

Most of the finished keys in the shop are affixed to the door. An art hobbyist, he installed swirling patterns of brass and nickel on the door last December. By spring, Mortillaro hopes to cover the exterior of the store with panels of keys in the same fashion as his door.

In a neighborhood with $2 million condos, designer clothing and $10 crepes, Mortillaro’s eccentric shop is a reminder of the Village’s grungier, bohemian past.

“The Village was full of little places like this,” he said moments before two passersby stopped and gazed at the store.

Mortillaro nearly had the building demolished and replaced in 1991.

“I’m glad we didn’t do it,” he said. “It would have been more Disney World.”

He had the architectural design, bank loans and community board approval to go ahead with the project. But Mortillaro ultimately decided against rebuilding his shop, which lies in the Greenwich Village Historic District. Mortillaro said he was worried that someone in the neighborhood would object to the demolition and stir up costly legal trouble for him.

Owning the quirky, little one-story building has helped keep him in business, he said. He pays about $3,000 a year in property taxes — far less than what he pays to rent his apartment. Many other longstanding businesses in Greenwich Village have that quality in common: Their owners also own the building or at least have an option to buy it when the lease expires.

“He’s a Village landmark, Phil,” said Frank Ottomanelli, whose family business in Greenwich Village predates Mortillaro’s.

A few years ago, Mortillaro received an offer to sell the store to a sunglasses company, he said. The would-be buyers offered to help him retire.

“This is retirement to me. I enjoy it.” Mortillaro said, recalling the conversation. “When I die, this will go too.” 

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