As the founder and owner of Ace Lock on Baum Boulevard, Sandra Hunter has been a key member (pun intended) of the East Liberty business community for more than 45 years. Born and raised in the neighborhood, she has not only lived through the many faces of East Liberty— from before Urban Renewal to today’s revitalization—but also successfully evolved her business along with them.
We sat down with Hunter to hear more about her business and journey in the neigbhorhood.
To start, can you tell us a little about the history of Ace Lock in East Liberty?
I started the business in 1975 with my ex-husband. We started off doing locks and keys at my mother’s house, and then we gradually moved along and got a garage. My sister had been in a car accident, so one day I was taking her out for a stroll in her wheelchair, and I came across an empty storefront in East Liberty. I thought, “Wow, that would be great.” I had grown up playing store, and I just thought it would be really nice to have a storefront. We inquired, and the rent was $275 a month, which was like a fortune to us at that time, but we decided to go ahead and take the plunge. That’s how we ended up getting started in East Liberty. To this day, we still have a shop that’s quite busy. We need two full-time techs in the shop to take care of our commercial and residential customers. We also have seven trucks that go to businesses and residential to do everything from working on locks to cameras to access control, etc.
After a period of time, we took on more space because we were growing, and we were going to remodel one of the offices up on the second floor. We talked to the landlord, and he told us he was thinking of selling. We didn’t have the down payment at that time, so he took back the mortgage, and we were able to buy the building. We became the owners around 1981. That was another big move, and we just kept taking a little more space in the building. The building has nine units. Right now, we have four of those that we use as our own offices. It was really great being the owners of the building because we had confirmed space. We didn’t have to worry about somebody coming in and saying, “I’m going to raise your rent, or I’m going to put something else here.” So, we had that advantage. When my husband and I separated, I became the sole owner of Ace Lock and have been for around 35 years now.
Why did you choose East Liberty?
I grew up in East Liberty. In fact, we were raised in the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. So, we have a lot of ties throughout the community. We wanted to be in East Liberty for a number of reasons. I had mentioned that my sister was in a serious car accident, with my brother having the fatality. So, there was care that was needed there, and my mother lived in Shadyside at the time—we had our roots here. I don’t think we really looked anywhere else. We were happy with that location, and that’s where we stayed.
Do you remember what East Liberty was like before Urban Renewal?
Oh, yes. East Liberty was a thriving business community. As kids, our mom and neighbors would take us down to East Liberty and we would go window shopping from store to store. At the end of it, if we were good kids, we would get some kind of treat from Isaly’s, which was an ice cream place. So, it was a thriving community until the redevelopment came in, and it just wasn’t successful.
What do you think of the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood over the past 20 years?
It’s really good to see. In the past, sometimes it was hard to attract staff. East Liberty was not considered to be a safe place and some did not want to work in East Liberty.
I remember offering an administrative position to an applicant. She and I were excited about her joining our team. The next day she called and said she would not be accepting the position. Her husband did not want her to work in East Liberty. I reminded her we escort staff to and from the parking lot but her mind was made up. I remember the frustration I felt because it is challenging to recruit and retain good people. Once East Liberty had an improved reputation as a safe area, it was easier to hire.
I always thought that East Liberty was a great area. We’re centrally located. We’re not that far from downtown, Shadyside, Fox Chapel, and all these other neighborhoods are within a short drive. So, we took advantage of that fact and were able to build up a solid business.
Inside Ace Lock on Baum Boulevard in East Liberty.
Have you noticed a change in business over the last 20 years?
I think it’s really great to have all these new businesses close by, because when we first became tenants in East Liberty, there was almost nothing here. Now, we have high-tech businesses and a lot of restaurants. It’s been really good from that perspective.
Mostly, business has picked up. We have really great staff, some of which have been with us for 30 years, so they’re really good at what they do, and people keep coming back and referring us to new people all the time. That’s been a huge benefit.
What’s next for Ace Lock?
The business has been functioning for a long time, and over the years, we’ve had to make changes. That’s how you stay successful in business. You have to keep changing as things change around you. One example is automotive lock service. Automotive lock service was a major revenue source for our business. As automotive locking systems became increasingly electronic, it was clear this would be a dealer service only. We had to plan for that part of our business to be reduced and eventually eliminated. We started providing commercial and residential electric locks, access control, and CCTV. That is a major revenue source for our business now. So, we’ve gone through a lot of different changes over the years, and I’m sure that we will continue needing to make changes. You can’t stay in one place. You have to keep moving along.