Anyone who has ever been caught at the traffic light on North Chestnut Street in New Paltz on a nice day in the past 37 years might know Ken Hasbrouck on sight. When it’s warm out and he’s got a slow day, Hasbrouck will sit outside of his shop, Allied Locksmiths, read a book and occasionally make silly faces at kids in school buses. He’s been at it so long that some of those kids have come into the shop as adults, and remarked upon it. That’s a vignette which will never be repeated, because Hasbrouck and his wife Rosalie have decided to close down their retail location at the end of December and focus entirely on the mobile business which represents the bulk of his work.
Despite being an icon by his presence out front, “I’m very rarely here,” Ken said when he and Rosalie sat down to talk about nearly four decades at one of the busiest intersections in the village. Instead, he works in private homes and for commercial clients on location, doing everything from cutting custom keys for antique doors to setting up master-key systems in apartment complexes. “I spend 75 to 80 percent of my time on the road.”
While it’s a recognizable business because of its location, “The shop doesn’t pay,” he said. “It’s never paid. It’s a visual,” a three-dimensional billboard for the service he provides.
Rosalie, whose job it is to manage the shop, agreed. “We have people in and out all day and not buy anything,” she said. Some of that comes from the fact that they only sell locks which Ken thinks are worth fixing. It’s easy to get the same brands at Lowe’s for a lower price, he said, but while the locks look identical, the inner workings are usually made of plastic and break easily. “They’re designed to be thrown away,” he said.
Much of the work people come in for is to have new keys cut, and there’s more and more competition for making simple house keys. Car keys are something that they gave up as security systems got more advanced. Keys with computer chips can cost several hundred dollars each, and the laser cutter which can add grooves to the sides, would cost $10,000 to purchase. “That’s a lot of keys to pay for it,” Ken said, and they only ever got two or three people a month needing one anyway.
Getting people into cars they’ve locked themselves out of is also not particularly profitable. “The police are supposed to only open cars in an emergency,” he said, “but they do it as a service,” only calling him when his skills are required. Others in town provide such break-in service for free, although an amateur can sometimes damage the car. He’s aware of some occasions when an airbag was set off while trying to get into a car.
When Ken Hasbrouck says, “New Paltz hasn’t changed that much,” he’s definitely looking at the long view. He’s a direct descendant of signers of the Duzine, a tenth-generation New Paltzian, who has lived here all his life and kept a shop downtown for nearly four decades. His father ran the Huguenot Historical Society, precursor to Historic Huguenot Street. In the grand scheme of things, it’s easy to see his point. The Ridge remains, and the stone houses and the river in between. “It’s just home,” he said.
Home is where he was when, as a child, he’d walk from what’s now the middle school to Elaine Sergeant’s Five and Dime on his way to youth choir practice at the New Paltz Reformed Church. I’d spend 45 cents on penny candy, and it would last me a week,” he said. Home is also where he and Rosalie have watched the building rise up at 51 Main Street; from their perspective, it’s not only too tall, it’s a massive blank wall that’s just begging for graffiti vandals to take advantage.
“It’s not New Paltz,” Rosalie believes, echoing the sentiment of many residents who believe it’s simply too tall for downtown.
Hasbrouck worked at a machine shop in Poughkeepsie for ten years before it was closed down, and while he could have gotten a job at IBM, “it would have been third shift,” a schedule he was reluctant to keep with small children. Acquaintances agreed to teach him the basics of being a locksmith, and he opened up the shop in 1981 and taught himself most everything else. “My daughters grew up in the shop,” he said, in the company of their mother Rosalie.
The walls inside of Allied Locksmiths are now largely bare, because the moving into the home shop is well underway. That includes key blanks for just about every automobile made from 1920s through the ‘70s, as well as perhaps a hundred different types of skeleton key. “There are still people in town that use a skeleton key in their front door,” he said. Just one row of the keys on his wall covers just about every old front door, but his selection includes the ones made for jewelry boxes, interior doors, armoires and the like. Some of them might end up on eBay in the future, he said.
What one will not likely get at a big-box store is someone who can take apart a 150-year-old lock, get its pieces working again, and then cut a key to replace one long lost. His prize key-cutting machine, a Dayton made by the Keil Lock Company, was the sixth of its kind ever made. It’s got multiple cutting wheels at different angles, and is capable of side-milling when necessary. As with most everything under Ken’s purview, he fixes that machine himself. Artists have been known to collect key dust from his machines to use in their projects, and he’s always been happy to accommodate them.
While the location is highly visible, there’s no room for customer parking on the property, and everything nearby is metered, which the Hasbroucks believe is a deterrent to visitors.
“People have gotten a ticket when they’ve stopped to run in,” Ken said, but the bigger problem was when the four on-street parking spots nearest the shop were eliminated to reduce backups at the light. “I fought that,” he said.
Watching the traffic all day, Rosalie said that what actually improved the problem was changing the light sequence, not removing the parking spaces. Since those spots were removed, the couple agree that it’s become more dangerous because drivers gun the engine to make the light. Their anecdotes reflect what many traffic engineers assert, that parked cars can result in calmer traffic.
“It’s like a video game trying to get across the street now,” said Ken. He estimated that there’s an accident near the shop about once a month.
Rosalie said that recently, one driver drove up on the sidewalk to hit the green. “That was a new one.”
Despite those barriers, Hasbrouck has managed to make a living and support a family. What he hasn’t done is create a business worth selling, or at least that’s what he’s been told. A business broker advised him that a business which wasn’t generating $100,000 in annual profit would not generate much interest from buyers. “I’ve made a living,” he said, but “never been rich.”
It’s the work he does on the road which not only makes that living, but has kept his interest over the years. “It’s different all the time,” he said, and it gives him the opportunity to help people, which he enjoys. For the first 30 years, he personally provided emergency service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while Rosalie kept the shop open six days a week. Now they’re only open five, and the emergency service has gone the way of the dodo. “There were a lot of no-shows,” he said. “It just got old.”
Life on the road has generated its share of stories, though. There was the time he opened a safe deposit box left abandoned, and discovered $175,000 in cash inside. On another occasion, he opened a locked car trunk for a customer and learned it was full of guns. “Not my business,” he said.
Handcuffs are also a bit of a specialty. Kids who find a pair often don’t think things through, and he’s been called to homes and schools to spring them. He also recalls a tourist who explained that he’d found a pair while on a hiking trail, and decided to “try them out” when he returned to his hotel room, apparently by locking himself to the bed.
Closing the shop will be a change, Ken said. “It’s a big part of my life,” he admitted, and he’ll miss it. On the other hand, with “bad hips, bad knees, bad wrists, bad back,” he won’t miss sitting in the chair behind the counter, nor the one out front. It also could open the way to a whole new life for the Hasbroucks. They haven’t had a vacation in several years, and rarely one that was much more than a long weekend in any case. “We could visit my sister,” said Rosalie.