125 square feet
Greenwich Locksmiths // Locksmith // Greenwich Village, Manhattan
Philip Mortillaro cannot be described in one word, unless there is a term for locksmith-philosopher-artist-renegade-first-generation-family-man-wiseass-badass. Since 1980, he’s been cutting keys and cracking safes out of his store, the smallest freestanding building in New York City.
“My parents were born in Sicily and I was born on Elizabeth Street. I only went to school up to eighth grade. I was left back three times because I was a terror. It was just my nature. I did whatever I could to aggravate them. That was my sole occupation and I did a good job of it. I'll never forget what the principal told me. He said: ‘You're gonna be a burden to society.’
The thing is, I have this trade. I've been locksmithing since I was 14. I’ve always had a shop. I’ve been employing people since I was 18 years old. I never get bored of it. It’s all about solving problems. You're working with puzzles.
I have such a good reputation here. All my keys work because I use a micrometer, which no one else does. It measures to the thousandth of an inch. You only have to be 1/10,000 of an inch off for a key not to work. That’s the width of a piece of paper. I cut thousands and thousands of keys a week. And if I get one back it's a lot. Precision is the whole name of the game. Something we're lacking today is quality.
Keys are numbers, just like hacking is numbers. When you code computers, it's the same as setting up a master key system. My son is in the business with me. He does all the computer stuff for the electronic jobs. He's smart. He loves math. We all love math. Math is so true, so honest. It's always gonna be what it is.
When I first bought this building, the owner wanted $40,000. I offered him $20,000 cash and he took it like a thief in the night because he wasn't getting any money out of the place. A fortuneteller was in here that never paid rent. You gotta realize it was almost fifty years ago. That building across the street was empty. Only gas stations here. Cars and trucks all over the sidewalk. It was like hell. I liked it because it's where I belong. But not today, everything's so nice now. It's such bullshit. I don't need nice. It was working fine for me before.
This is Disney World now. You go on a safari in Disney World, right? You wade through water but there won't be any poisonous snakes. No giant anything is gonna come out and get you because it’s all plastic plants. That's what New York City is now. Fucking Disney World.
I make metal sculptures. I decorated the store’s facade with 10,000 keys including a Van Gogh ‘Starry Night’ mural out of keys. Why? To bring some art and individuality back to the Village.
The store is 125 square feet and I use every square inch. Drawers, counters, six machines, keys covering every wall, shelves all the way up the ceiling. I even have Sidney Solomon’s ashes in a box in that corner up there. He worked for me for 18 years. Thing with Sid is, he was a good friend of mine. So when Sid said: ‘Phil, when I die I want my ashes thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge,’ I said: ‘Fine, I could do that for you.’
But I hadn't been on the Brooklyn Bridge in a long time – you can’t get to that outside ramp. So now I'm gonna be the Sicilian guy who looks Arab throwing white powder off a bridge. I have to put it on hold until politically it’s a more suitable time. Until then, Sid’s up there in the corner. He loved this shop. Sid worked all the time, Sid liked work. Taught me a lot about business.
I guess if you've been around long enough, you get philosophical. What are the really serious questions? It’s just: ‘Why the fuck are we here?’ It's too horrible to contemplate. So you distract yourself with a Canada Goose jacket. But the real question is still there.
Chase offered me $2 million to buy the building to build an ATM. I turned them down. They came back with a better offer and I said: ‘Not interested.’ They said: ‘Do you even want to hear what it is?’ I said: ‘No, what do I want to hear it for? I'm not gonna sell it.’
Because what am I gonna do with that money? I have everything I need and that's a great way to live. Nobody owns you. That's how to get around in this society without having to put up with all the bullshit. That might even be the key to life.