This was an interesting story to write. It started off as a small, this-business-was-just-remodeled feature, but I found that the more I talked to Greg and Susan, the more they had to share about the business and the stories they had were both numerous and captivating. The result? A 50+ inch feature in the Weekend Edition of The Gazette.
There are five minutes until work and the car keys are nowhere to be found. Panic begins to set in and frustration mounts.
That’s where Greg and Susan Johnson come in to save the day.
The husband and wife team have been the owners and operators of Midwest Locksmiths since 1988. Their line of work can include anything from cutting keys for houses, apartment complexes, padlocks, furniture locks, businesses and safe deposit boxes, to installing security systems and alarms for residential homes and businesses.
“Because of the size of town Emporia is, we have to do lots of things,” Greg Johnson said. “We find that we have to do pretty much anything with keys.”
Modern update for antique building
The Johnson’s have recently updated the look of their shop at 417 Merchant St. There were many factors that contributed to the remodeling. Greg Johnson said one of the main reasons was the poor condition of the roof.
“The building was just deteriorating,” he said. “It was time to clean up.”
Emporia Construction was in charge of the remodel. New windows and doors were installed and the exterior was refinished with a stucco-type material. Inside the shop, sheetrock was installed, and the floor, roof and heating and air conditioning units were updated.
“The way we look at it, it’s a new building,” Greg Johnson said.
The pair said they unearthed some interesting items during the remodel.
“(We found) some shag carpet … that was rainbow colored,” Susan Johnson said. “We think it used to be a stereo shop in the ‘70s.”
The location on Merchant Street was opened in 1976 by Greg ’s father, Bud Johnson. He initially started in the profession with his brother in 1972 after participating in a correspondence course offered through LIFE magazine. He then quit his job at Iowa Beef Packing, now Tyson Meats, and became the sole owner of Midwest Locksmiths. Greg Johnson followed in his footsteps.
“Because we lived out in the country there wasn’t anybody to watch us, or lots of times it wasn’t an option that I go to work with my dad,” Greg Johnson said. “So basically I grew up in the locksmith shop.”
“And I married it,” added Susan.
An array of aid
Locksmithing is an often-misunderstood profession. With businesses such as Walmart, Bluestem and True Value offering key cutting as one of their diverse services, the Johnsons see customers coming to them as a last resort.
“(People) say, ‘This is the last place we checked,’” said Susan Johnson. “Well, you should make it your first place. We just grab the key off the rack and cut it and they just look at us like, ‘that’s it?’”
“We find it amazing be- cause we’ve been here so long, we just assume that most people in the commu- nity and around have at least some idea of what we do,” said Greg Johnson.
However, the variety of services that the Johnsons provide don’t quite cover everything. Greg Johnson recalls an unusual service call.
“I got a call from a guy after five o’clock … the guy wanted to know if I could come over to his house and unlock some handcuffs, and I said, ‘I’m not sure, could you tell me some more of the story?’ And his story was that his buddies did it to him, and I said, ‘I would recommend that you go to the sheriff’s department or somewhere and have them use their handcuff key.’
“I didn’t want to put myself in a bad situation,” said Greg Johnson. “It sounded kind of fishy to me.”
Perks of the profession
Although the hours are posted on the door, Midwest Locksmiths isn’t a typical eight-to-five business. Customers calling after-hours and emergency services are just part of the daily grind for the Johnsons.
“The problem is that things tend to happen or they tend to wait until it’s not a real convenient time,” said Greg Johnson. “They don’t call you at eight o’clock in the morning … they wait until 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday.”
“I guess what [other people] may find as a frustration, we don’t like to call it a frustration because it’s business for us,” said Susan Johnson.
And the business is steady.
“It never ceases to amaze us how many people drive a car with only one key,” said Greg Johnson.
“One of the things that seem to happen a lot … that just kind of makes us shake our head is, numerous people flush their only keys down the toilet at the Matfield Green service area when they’re at McDonald’s,” said Susan Johnson.
The pair claims it’s happened at least half-a-dozen times, maybe more. However, no matter the incident, the Johnsons try to help their customers as much as they can.
“We do what we can do, and if somebody needs to meet us down here on a week- end, we meet somebody down here on a weekend,” said Susan Johnson.
Two services that Midwest Locksmiths provide free of charge are wellness checks for the city of Emporia and the Emporia Police Department and extracting children locked in cars.
“You feel like you can give a service and not have to charge,” said Susan Johnson. “It’s just our way of being able to give back. It’s a panic situation, I know, that people are in when they’re in those situations, and it’s something we can do for them.”
Accommodating and enduring
As technology improves and takes over certain aspects of the profession, such as computerized security systems and keyless push-to-start cars, there looms the question of whether or not a locksmith will soon become obsolete.
“Whenever people ask that, Susan and I just laugh because there’s still people that use skeleton key locks in Emporia,” said Greg Johnson.
Just as the cars themselves have changed, the keys have been updated as well.
“We’ve seen it go from just a standard key, to one that has a computer chip in it, to one that they call prox keys where you just walk up to it and it unlocks the door,” said Susan Johnson. “We’ve had to adapt and buy new tools.”
The pair says they still have clients with cars from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s that they do service on and cut keys for. They aren’t counting on those disappearing anytime soon.
“We still have to learn new things, but we still will have the old cars,” said Susan Johnson. “You don’t see some of the older cars completely going away. There’s always some of them still out there.”
The future of the business will depend on the ability of the Johnsons to stay tech-savvy.
“Now instead of just cutting a key for a car, we may cut the key and then we go out and we program it with a computer or laptop and hook it up to the cars,” said Susan Johnson.
“We try to stay up with all the new technology and all the new things that are out,” said Greg Johnson. “We know we have to adapt or we will go out of business at some point.”
“Married to your business”
From its beginnings in the 1970s, Midwest Locksmiths has always been family owned. The Johnsons’ son, Jared, worked in the shop during past summers. Although Greg and Susan Johnson don’t believe it is something that will continue, they tried to make it a learning experience.
“We were glad that he came and did that so he at least could see what we do and give him some appreciation when he goes out and does other jobs, what happens behind the counter,” said Susan Johnson.
“We try to teach our kids that this is what we expect, and when you go to work somewhere else, that you carry those expectations on to your next place of employment,” said Greg Johnson.
Working behind the scenes in a family-owned business is a common thread the couple shares. Both grew up with fathers who were self-employed.
“There’s a big difference in how you look at the world, and look at people and look at things if you’ve worked behind the scenes in a business versus if you’re just a consumer going in and using those peoples’ services,” said Greg Johnson.
As a husband and wife team, the Johnsons find that they are constantly connected to their daily life at the shop. Staying after-hours, going on emergency service calls and finding time to keep their book work up to date keeps them busy round-the-clock.
“It’s like being married to your business,” said Susan Johnson. “We don’t walk away and forget it, we live it. We think about it all the time.”
As long-time residents of Emporia, Greg and Susan find that owning the business has allowed them to make many connections within the area.
“It’s kind of nice to live in a community where it doesn’t matter where you go, for the most part, that you run into people and you know them from work,” said Greg Johnson. “You say ‘hi’ and consider them somewhat of a friend. I think just because the size of town Emporia is, we kind of like that part of it.”
“And then you know what kind of locks they have and what kind of cars they drive because you’ve made all their keys,” Susan Johnson added with a laugh.
Perhaps what makes Midwest Locksmiths unique is how the business has shaped day-to-day life for the Johnsons.
“It’s more than a job,” said Greg Johnson. “It’s a part of our lives.”