After serving in the Israeli army, Cohen and his childhood friend Yuval opened the Paragon Locksmith company with no store, just a phone number. It wasn’t glamorous, but thanks to constant flyering, it was busy. “You’d be surprised how many couples get handcuffed to each other without a key,” Cohen says. He also got to meet his share of locked-out celebrities, like Harvey Keitel and “that redhead from Sex and the City.”
Within a year, business was robust enough to buy the $20,000 lease on a small Christopher Street shop, then another on 12th Street for $100,000. That store came with big accounts (Con Ed, the Mark Hotel) that enabled Cohen to buy a third location on 45th Street and Second Avenue, next door to a suspiciously empty Chinese restaurant and a moderately successful bordello. Knowing the police would soon free up the space, Cohen offered to buy the building from the landlord for $1.6 million. He set about drafting plans to expand the ground-floor store, and his architect discovered he could build ten more stories. Overnight, Cohen became a developer. The eighteen apartments he built sold for a total of $11 million. “That,” he says, “was the home run of my life.”
Cohen had some cash and a brand-new 2,500-square-foot store—ten times the size of his original—but nothing to put in it. “I bought all kinds of tools nobody needs. Scissors that cut metal. You sell one of those once every ten years.” His business finally took shape when he started asking anyone who walked in what they wanted him to carry. “Someone asked for a corkscrew, so I’d order one.” Someone wanted sheets; he’d get those too. A Simplehuman garbage can? A Votivo candle? Done and done. Soon he had 15,000 items, from potting soil and air conditioners to organic laundry detergent and pink-flamingo watering cans.
In 2004, Cohen changed the name of his mini-chain to Basics Plus (his wife’s idea). He’d visit big-box stores like Bed Bath & Beyond to see what they were promoting, then order and sell it for less. Some of his most popular items—such as key chains made by the Webkinz manufacturer—were suggestions from his three kids.
Investors have called about franchising nationally, but Cohen is leaning toward staying local. He added three locations last year and thinks the city has room for twenty more. His broker’s been instructed to look for space in any neighborhood, as long as it’s a crowded one. “If buildings are tall, it means a lot of locks,” Cohen says. “Everyone needs keys.”