Characters Of The Village 

Philip Mortillaro of Greenwich Locksmiths

By Brian and Joy Pape

Philip and Phil Mortillaro are surrounded by their supply of keys to meet their customers’ needs at their tiny shop. Credit: Brian Pape.

We have often walked up and down Seventh Avenue and admired the little key building but we never saw anyone. Then, one day we walked by and saw Philip Mortillaro! Right away we told him of our admiration, gave him a copy of the Village View and chose him for the Character of the Village.

For a man that to many people needs no introduction, we present Philip Mortillaro, proprietor of the Greenwich Locksmith Shop at 56 Seventh Avenue South. The smallest free-standing building in Manhattan is the proud location of one of the oldest continuous businesses in Manhattan.

This is no ordinary storefront, no ordinary locksmith business, and no ordinary businessman. Since Mortillaro was just 14 years old, he has worked on locks and safes. He loves his work, even when he gets a little bored. When this happens, he delves deeper into the crafts, learning new skills or adapting his trade to a new approach.

In 1968 at the age of 18, he opened his first store on Union Square West next to Andy Warhol’s studio. He owned and operated dozens of shops in NYC, California and Washington state before buying the store that would become Greenwich Locksmiths in 1980. 

In previous lives, the building was a fortune teller’s shop and a service station kiosk. Tax photos show a remnant of triangular lots left behind by the forced cutting of the avenue through Greenwich Village earlier in the century.

Not satisfied with leaving the façade as he found it, Mortillaro dressed up the walls with his art. Taking thousands of old brass keys (at least 25,000) from his and his colleagues’ shops, Mortillaro welded them to a grill to create a montage of abstract flowing images that infill the wall spaces and cover the doors. Thus, the building itself declares itself to be a house of keys.

Mortillaro told Village View that he also perfected the skill of safe-cracking, which then developed into a large part of his successful business. Today, two massive steel safes sit on the sidewalk in front of the store, welded in place to thwart any ambitious drunk who thinks it would be fun to tip it over or roll it down the street. It’s a visible symbol of the business within.

Mortillaro had rented another storefront on the corner as his art and welding studio until a car crashed into it, creating so much damage that he had to leave while it got repaired. When the rent was later raised, he had to move out of that space. 

Now 73 years of age, Mortillaro has no plans to retire, but he is planning for the future. Most importantly, he has mentored his son (also Phil) to run the business and be the face of the on-going enterprise. In what many consider a lost tradition, the son follows in the family business. The younger Phil, who lives in the Village, told us that he loves the business and he loves working with his father.

The senior Mortillaro was born in the Village, his family lived on Elizabeth Street and then Thompson Street. He raised a family in the Village and keeps a studio apartment on 4th Street, The primary family residence is now in New Jersey where Mortillaro continues his artwork in a local workshop on weekends when he can get away and be with his family.

We asked Mortillaro how the pandemic affected his work and life. He explained, “Prior to the pandemic, I kept several employees busy. We had a fleet of vans servicing the city. When the pandemic hit, I could walk across the avenue without looking, there were so few cars. People stayed home or moved out of the city. Offices and stores closed too. We were an essential business, so we stayed open except for one month. There just wasn’t much business. My employees had to be laid off. Most left town and didn’t return. It was down to the skeleton crew of me and my son. We made it work.”

When asked about their favorite places, both men said Washington Square Park and Hudson River Park are always great places to relax, see lots of different people, and enjoy a walk. And even with so many great places to choose from, they both lament that their favorite sushi restaurant on 3rd Street has closed due to their rent being raised to $20,000 per month.

When asked “what is your greatest accomplishment?” Mortillaro said, “My son.”

As for his work, the locksmith uses his grandfather’s Italian word, “Balancia!” which means, “it’s important!” 

Check out where you can learn more about Mortillaro, his life and business on the PBS Special.