The making of Keys To Time
The story behind one of the Pedway’s oldest businesses
In 1976, newlyweds Art and Kathy Alekno opened a key-copying service in the Pedway under the lobby of 233 N. Michigan Ave. Having turned a profit doing similar business in flea markets near Marquette Park since their high school days in the late 1960s, they felt ready to try the newfangled, indoor retail thoroughfare. This March, just a few steps away from the place where it all began, they’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of Keys To Time.
“I was working at an industrial plant and I wanted to go out on my own,” says Art. “I wanted to do something for myself.” Art had learned the key-copying trade while working at a local Sears store in high school. He had also noticed that Sears was successful despite its flaws, namely a lack of personalized customer service and an overall disregard for precision.
“When I came down here, it was like, ‘yeah, this might work,’ Kathy remembers. “If it doesn’t, we crash it.” Kathy had earned a BS in Chemistry from UIC and was working in Walgreen’s quality control department when they launched the business. She helped run the store part-time for a few years before leaving Corporate America to join Art in the Pedway for good.
When they set up shop, the concourse was far from becoming the labyrinthine retail marketplace that it is today. “There were only three buildings,” Art recalls. “This building, One Illinois Center and what is now the west tower of the Hyatt.”
A hundred yards east of their kiosk, the Pedway abruptly came to an end where a few doors opened to a field that extended to Lake Shore Drive. Besides the tracks of the Illinois Central railroad, there was little else. Over the next four decades, the landscape would transform into a three-par golf course and, eventually, The Aqua, Lake Shore East Park and an urban nook full of upscale high-rise condominiums and shops. The Pedway would grow to nearly connect them all.
Among their shop’s neighbors were handful of food operations and a few regular stores, but most have since moved on. “The bank and the barbershop are the only two that are the same as when we first opened,” Art says.
The Aleknos had learned from their flea market days that foot traffic generated business. “It’s an impulse type thing,” Kathy explains. “People walk by and they see us and think, ‘oh, I need a key.’” Since the Illinois Center was less than two years old, they knew that many Chicagoans had yet to discover the Pedway. Fortunately, the location of their shop is highly visible as an open kiosk along a thoroughfare.
“This building at the time wanted kiosks in the middle,” Kathy says.
Before long, Art’s knack for the process paid off. “We ask the customers if they ever have problems with their keys,” he explains. “Then we make modifications to help the new key insert or turn more easily.”
Business picked up so quickly that they soon added watch repair and maintenance to the list of services. Besides customizing the sizes of individual bands, Keys To Time now stocks 70 different types of batteries for replacing garage door openers, car remotes — “anything that uses batteries like that” says Art — as well as watches.
In 1980, Kathy decided to investigate a nearby residential building under construction at 233 E. Wacker Dr. “I thought I’ll go over and see what they’re charging,” she remembers. She liked the units, calculated the amount they’d save from not commuting to work every day and convinced her husband to move into a rental in what is now Columbus Plaza. The geography and the neighborhood were so agreeable that, six years later, they bought a place of their own a few blocks east on Upper Wacker Drive.
As the business became something like a second home for the Aleknos, the customers grew into something like a family. “We’ve been here so long, we have people who have retired and moved out of the city but will make a special trip down with watches,” says Kathy. People from as far away as Florida stop by when they visit Chicago, and flight attendants frequently drop off watches and keys during layovers in the area’s hotels.
For some, the success of a business that started in a flea market stall with a machine powered by two 12-volt marine batteries may seem remarkable. But according to Art, it’s nothing more than hard work and quality service.
“The concept is very simple: you are tracing the original key,” he says. “But we can make new keys that work better, which very few places do.”
Keys to Time · (312) 861-1294 · 233 N. Michigan Ave. · Chicago, IL 60601
— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer