“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place.” -Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
The moment I stepped inside the Hill’s Brothers Lock & Safe shop in Garden Grove, memories of my childhood fantasy came rushing back to me.
I can pinpoint the source of my fascination with keys to one of my favorite childhood novels, The Secret Garden. There was something so magical and special about the key to the garden, as if it did not just guard the entrance between two physical spaces, the garden and the manor, but rather between what was real and what was imagined. I remember how I wished I could find a beautiful old key to some secret space, just like the one in my novel: a key to lead me though an entryway to a place that was not entirely real, a place only I had access to.
As with most childhood dreams it was forgotten over time. That is, until I was faced with the mundane task of buying a new garage door opener. Some of the most fascinating places we find are the ones we discover by accident.
Inside the locksmith’s shop, rows of locks and keys are layered across the wall like sedimentary rock. The oldest ones cover the top half of the wall, and the most recent additions dangle from their spaces across the bottom half. Literally every square inch of the shop contains at least one key. I venture inside, the garage door opener now far from my mind.
The key to the back office of the shop is located inside a drawer, hidden in plain sight. Loose tumblers and pins, old keys, blank keys, tools, and lock picks cover the entire bottom of the drawer. Anthony Hill, locksmith, rummages around and picks out a single, insignificant-looking key. No markings or key chains are attached to signify its purpose. He holds it in his palm and motions for me to follow him. “Let me show you my office.”
Anthony’s office is not an office. It is a museum of keys displayed somewhat forlornly on shelves behind glass cases. The keys were collected by George Hill, the shop’s original owner and Anthony’s uncle. Most of the collection has been moved to the Orange County Lock Museum in Placenta, but enough remains to fill the back office from floor to ceiling.
Flecks of dust float around the room, shimmering in the shafts of light that shine through the smudged windows. It smells old in here, like a basement or attic that has not been visited for years. There are keys everywhere. Some are hanging behind tall glass display cases; others are stacked on shelves. The larger items are arranged on the floor. A small display case on the wall–about the size of a picture frame–exhibits an assortment of small, delicate padlocks. A time lock from an old bank vault lies on the ground, its clock frozen at 9:17. Skeleton keys that have been separated from their locks dangle from a large metal key ring.
Anthony meanders through the displays. Every once in a while he stops to tell me the stories of the keys and locks. He points to a large cross-section display of the inside of a Yale lock and explains that Yale invented the classic pin-and-tumbler lock, much like the one you or I have on our front doors.
He points to an odd-looking brass frame on the wall, an original casting mold for skeleton keys that’s one of the last of its kind. “A rarity,” his father–also in the locksmith business–said of the mold when Anthony was a little boy.
The only item that looks out of place here is a slab of wood engraved with Chinese characters, located smack dab in the center of the room–a large, wooden monument among hundreds of tiny, metal objects. It belonged to his grandparents, he explains to me. “It’s what’s mine.”
Each of these tiny, mechanical trinkets symbolizes our universal impulse to safeguard what we value most, and what we want to keep from robbers and criminals and more commonly, each other. Those who hold the keys hold the power because they have access to the things we wish to keep separate, secret, or safe from the rest of the world.
As we exit the office Anthony inserts the key into the lock once more. I can hear the tiny mechanisms turning and clicking inside the lock. I imagine the notches of the key pushing the pins and springs down and the tumbler turning, every compartment in perfect harmony with one another. The door locks.
Lauren Alejo is a literary journalism student at the University of California, Irvine and an intern at Patch.com.
*Photo courtesy of Hill’s Brothers Lock & Safe.