On East State Street in Savannah, Georgia’s historic district, skeleton keys lie in the cement at the threshold of an antebellum three-story building. They spell out the name of the oldest business in town: B-R-A-D-L-E-Y-S.
As of a half-century ago, Bradley Lock and Key was home to not only a locksmith but a bevy of other expert tradesmen and tinkerers. As the hand-painted signs outside still advertise, Savannahians relied on Bradley’s to sharpen anything but their wits, to fix anything but a broken heart, or, as third-generation proprietor William Houdini “Dini” Bradley used to say, to make any key other than whiskey.
Today’s everyday wares—scissors, luggage, umbrellas—are sooner replaced than repaired, and the tinkerers are long retired, taking their wisdom with them. But the shop’s newest owner, fifth-generation locksmith Andrew Bradley, twenty-six, is the exception: He still knows how to make every key.
Mornings from 8:00 to 11:00, Bradley mans a worn-wood counter, which doubles as a visual tour of key-cutting technology through the ages: more than a half-dozen different machines, tools and devices, some dating back to the days of his great, great grandfather Simon Bradley, who opened up shop in 1883, or to Simon’s son Aaron, friend of—and locksmith for—Harry Houdini. A plaque near the window reads, THERE IS NO OTHER PLACE / ANYWHERE NEAR THIS PLACE / THAT IS JUST LIKE THIS PLACE / SO THIS MUST BE THE PLACE.
“I was pre-med at Georgia Southern,” Bradley says with a laugh. “It wasn’t my thing, I guess. And then I came home a bit early, to help [my granddad] out. My favorite part was getting to come in and work with him, learn from him.”
In an apprenticeship that started at age nineteen, Bradley became the steward of Savannah’s more than seventy different keyways, learning how to fix a mortise lock, how to file a skeleton key by hand, even how to crack a safe—and how to mind the dormant tear gas canisters lurking in the older models. With Dini’s passing two winters ago, Bradley inherited the keys.
“It’s not a normal job,” Bradley says, standing in front of a wall that holds some 5,000 key blanks that span at least 150 years. “You never know what call you’re going to get today, what door you’re going to unlock.”
The dimly lit nooks and warrens of the brick-walled shop are still stacked with history, but in the past two years, subtle change is taking hold. “When I took over, we were really outdated,” Bradley says. “Now we have all the equipment for opening a vault, to making a key for a 2020 Nissan—something we never had the capability of doing before.”
He has also cleared three dumpsters of contents from the shop’s still charmingly cluttered interior. “This was full of keys you couldn’t even move around,” he gestures toward the shop’s front windows. “People say, ‘Wow, you’ve really cleaned the place up.’ But you can still find something new every time you come in.”
He holds a brass key blank against the blade of the duplicator, then against the whirring brush of a buffer, and hands the fresh copy across the counter to a young woman, who hands him back two dollars.
“It’s like stepping back in time,” he says of the shop, “and I want to change that as little as possible. It’s one of a kind—you won’t find another place like it.”