Posted by: roamingolivia | December 6, 2010

Meditations on Winter and Key-Cutting


Winter makes me feel like an ill-prepared, poorly protected animal. To go out for a sandwich, I must put on a hat and scarf and coat. I guess I would not die if I didn’t put these on, but I would be really, really cold. It would be inadvisable. It’s something that happens every year: the uncomfortable remembrance that I cannot survive as an independent organism, after months of living in just my skin in the summer*, and light outerwear in fall.

And then there is the mirror image of this uncomfortable moment months later, in late spring, when I will be closing the front door to my house, uncertain whether it is advisable to leave without a jacket, and deciding I will brave it. It will almost always be too early, and I will almost always be making the wrong choice to leave the jacket at home.



Today I went to get a front-door key cut from the only man in London who can cut keys properly. Or, at least the only one who can cut them for this front door. I think he might be a criminal, but he is amazing. When other shoe repair shops are “booked up” (with shoe repairs) for days in advance, he can do them immediately. They’re relatively cheap. He’s fixed a button on one of my shoes amazingly, such that it has not broken in the 1.5 years since, even though it broke for the first time within weeks of buying the shoes. He is the ultimate combination of traits: does a good job in a timely fashion for a small amount of money. And he is friendly! But he never remembers you the next time you come in. I don’t mind that. It’s like getting to reset my relationship with him constantly, such that we are never friends and I am always a new customer.

Before I got my key cut, I took off my boots so he could reheel them (he doesn’t mind). Every shoe repair shop in London has a key-cutting sign. And vice versa. I sat there talking to him about that, and then I realised he is the perfect person to ask why these two tasks always coincide. Americans I meet after having moved here do not recall the combination of these two industries in the US, although many note that there aren’t tons of shoe-repair places, particularly not where people (a) drive or (b) can buy really cheap shoes whenever their last pair wears out. In London, I have to have my heels repaired once a week. Within days in Moscow I knew where the shoe-repair guys were. I had problems finding them in Milan, but it didn’t really matter because I only needed them done every few months there (not sure why – soft pavement?).

I asked him why shoe repair and key-cutting go together.

“A million people ask me that”, he said, smiling. “I will tell you the best answer I have: they want to make more money”.

He surmised that the key cutter and shoe repairman first were separate, then moved into a single shop to save money, then combined altogether. Then he noted that fewer and fewer people are getting their shoes repaired, and so they have to expand. He pointed to a very dusty, surely-not-operable (?) engraving machine in the corner, saying that it takes more intelligence than a key-cutting machine, but that if you can operate a shoe-repair machine, you can work the key-cutter.

Some people do watch repair, he said. “They just have to keep looking for new ways to make money.”


* less so in England but meh.



  1. By contrast, in spring I always leave my Big Coat on one day too long, and am flustered all day as a result.

  2. Actually I’ve seen a few key-cutting and shoe repair places in the U.S. Shoe repair places are getting harder and harder to find – the only one in Oxford closed down before I left, but there’s still one in Anniston. Apparently there’s a good one here in Tuscaloosa. And there were shoe repair places everywhere in Austin.

    But key-cutting mostly just happens at the Wal-mart.

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