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In the words of one half-joking admirer of the tiny yet well-adorned locksmith shop on Seventh Avenue South: “This is Greenwich Village. They can’t just be locksmiths, they have to be artists too.”
Whether you know Philip Mortillaro because he’s been making your keys since Greenwich Locksmiths opened in 1980, or because of his metal artwork, or just because he’s a fixture in this neck of the West Village – you don’t have to worry about his distinctive home base disappearing any time soon.
Mortillaro, 65, owns the tiny triangular shop, which he claims is the smallest free-standing storefront building in Manhattan – 19’x14’x14′ – and he wouldn’t trade his business and lifestyle for anything. (The Manhattan native already tried that, living everywhere from New England to the Pacific Northwest).
“I just like being me,” he says. “If I go north of 14th Street, nobody knows me. If I go south of Canal Street, nobody knows me. If I stay in this zone, everybody knows me. And I have an identity: I’m a locksmith.”
Not just any locksmith, either, but a safe-cracker of such skill that he’s done work for the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Post Office – plus many of the rich and famous residents of the area. On an average sunny afternoon, it is surprising just how many passers-by either greet Phil by name, have business to conduct, or else simply want to pause and admire the façade he crafted with his son, Philip Mortillaro, Jr. Made of thousands of keys, it’s inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
Phil Jr., 28, is happily following in his father’s footsteps. An information technology specialist and artist, as well as a locksmith, he finds that “the two things I love are merging.” That’s because his IT expertise helps Greenwich Locksmiths navigate the next generation of locks – electronic access systems, cameras, and such – and like his father, he’s pursuing metal sculpture. Both men have apartments nearby as well.
Says Phil Sr., “I have a love affair with this place. As Woody Allen said” — at the opening of the movie Manhattan — “it’s all out of proportion.” A history buff, he loves his hometown, past and present. Name a book about New York City, and he’s probably read it; The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs (once headquartered in the Westbeth building), is presently tucked on a shelf in the shop. Meanwhile, the front windows serve as a kind of museum of locks and locksmithery.
Both father and son acknowledge their neighborhood isn’t what it used to be — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “The neighborhood has changed a lot. But let’s face it, as we get older, things change,” says Phil Sr., who notes that the streetscape overall looks a lot better.
Greenwich Locksmiths used to have a staff of 12, whereas now there are just two other employees in addition to the Mortillaros. Phil Sr.’s first shop in the city was on Union Square, next to Andy Warhol’s former Factory, and he partied at Max’s Kansas City. Even Phil Jr. says the area used to be “more badass” when he was growing up.
Still, “it’s a neighborhood,” said Phil Sr. “This area has more history than you can imagine.”
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