Back In THE BRONX - The way it was!

Mel’s Key Shop

Summer 2007 • Vol. XV, Issue LVII

Apartment living in the Bronx from the 30’s through 60’s could be described in one word: CRAMPED! Fortunately for most, this was a temporary condition that lasted until the family could afford to move to a larger apartment or the kids graduated high school or college or married. Simple enough, problem solved. Now imagine this CRAMPED condition lasting four generations! . . .

Known as Mel’s Lock and Key Service, or simply Mel’s Key Shop by shoppers living in or around 170th Street & Jerome Avenue, one could feel the squeeze when they went to Mel’s for a key. If there were three people waiting ahead of you, it was quite possible that you would have to wait outside, because the shop was only 125 square feet! For Mel, this shop was much larger than his previous shop, which was located just a block away at 131 E. 170th Street. In fact, if you were a customer at this location, you wouldn’t even be able to enter the store. Believe it or not, the store measured only 26 inches by 42 inches. It was so small that in 1937 it was recognized as the “Smallest Shop In The Entire United States.”

Back in 1932, Mel’s brother Jerome came up with the idea of making keys from a bright orange cart that they assembled on the roof of their building on Townsend Avenue. They attached a $44 key-making machine to the orange cart at a taxi stand on the corner of 170th Street and Walton Avenue. The first day’s receipts totaled 90 cents. By the following Saturday, they had grossed close to $20. The brothers were on their way to becoming a fixture in the neighborhood. Then, in 1946, Jerome died.

Ninety-two year old Mel Herskovitz retired in 1974 and moved to Florida. His son Raymond, 46, now runs the shop. Raymond’s daughter, Mel’s granddaughter, also works part-time in the shop and, because Mel’s father at one time worked there, she is now the fourth generation of certified locksmith.

Recently, Mel came back to The Bronx to visit his family and the shop. He reminisced about the changes that took place during his 75 years in the business. Back in the 30’s and 40’s, most of the shoppers were predominantly Jewish. By the 60’s, many moved to Co-Op City. As apartments became vacant, blacks and Puerto Ricans moved in. During the turbulent 70’s and 80’s, when crime peaked in The Bronx, Mel recalls, there were many more robberies in the neighborhood than during the post-depression decade of the late 30’s and early 40’s.

Keys that used to sell for a dime or fifteen cents now cost $1.75. In the 30’s and 40’s, a lock installed in an apartment cost about $5.00. Today, the cost of installation now exceeds the cost of a lock (a lock costs $50; installation costs $75).

Many former patrons keep coming back to the store with their children to revisit, peek at the old orange cart, or just to look at the pictures of the old owners in their younger days.

Sign up for our Bronx email list.