AUSTIN, TEXAS — KNIVES in lipstick tubes. Pinhole video cameras. Voice-changing telephones. Transmitters for tailing cars.
``What'll it be, Mac?''
The Spy Exchange and Security Center, a new store in Austin, Texas, is a crossroads on the fringe of commerce, attracting both law-enforcement agents and the criminally inclined. It gives grim and dubious substance to boyish fantasies as often as it provides for legitimate security needs.
On the whole, crime in the nation is declining, notes store owner Ralph Thomas. But the news media publicize crime more often, he says.
Therefore, ``people are concerned about security more than they ever were.''
The Spy Exchange, one of an estimated 24 such independent operations in the United States, has prospered nicely since it opened two months ago, Mr. Thomas says. More and more of these kind of stores are opening across the country, he adds.
Thomas looks like the Florida private investigator he once was -
silver hair slicked back, a polo shirt, a gold chain. He got into marketing by publishing how-to books for his profession. Then he added other products to his mail-order line. After 15 years, he opened a storefront operation.
The Spy Exchange will not sell everything in stock - lock picks, for instance - to just anybody, Thomas explains. ``A dozen people a week walk in and ask for a bug. We pull out a plastic spider and say: `These are the only bugs we have,' '' he says. It is illegal to sell and use clandestine eavesdropping devices, Thomas notes, but anyone can buy a wireless microphone from Radio Shack for $19.95.
The Spy Exchange, however, does sell bugging devices for testing to customers who spend several thousand dollars on bug-detection equipment.
Something for everyone
Browsing in The Spy Exchange arouses a strange blend of emotions: repugnance at an almost criminally irresponsible book containing recipes for poisons; amazement at cans of name-brand shaving cream and hairspray that dispense their products, but whose bases unscrew to reveal a hidden compartment; amusement at arcane titles such as ``Underwater Crime Scene Investigation''; and captivation by Russian-made night-vision equipment selling for a fraction of the cost of its US equivalent.
Someone on your trail? Pick up ``How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found.'' Lose someone's trail? Try ``How to Find Anyone Anywhere.''
There's something at The Spy Exchange, it seems, for almost everyone: law-enforcement officers, private eyes, bail bondsmen, privacy fanatics, bodyguards, stalkers, tax dodgers, muckrakers, political dirty tricksters, and the man or woman who merely wants to feel a little safer.
From bizarre to extreme
For those looking for self-protection devices, pepper sprays and personal alarms are hot sellers. But some devices seem more like novelties. ``I can't see anybody defending himself with something like this,'' says store manager Dane Pritts, as he unscrews a metal baton to reveal four spikelike ``throwing darts.''
At the other extreme are the electronic stun guns, whose ferocious crackle and spark should be enough to scare away any would-be attacker.
``Of course, it's not funny to get hit with 120,000 volts,'' Mr. Pritts says. Such a charge is not fatal because it packs only one amp of voltage.
The Spy Exchange also appeals to business owners. To prevent employee theft, a camera concealed in an exit sign might do the trick. ``Two or three bad employees can make you go broke,'' Thomas says.
Increasingly, he says, businesses worry about industrial espionage - theft of trade secrets by competitors. A company can insure televisions, for example, but not trade secrets.
``Who sells the most hamburgers? Is it the company with the best hamburger or the one with the best operating procedures, market information, and advertising strategy?'' Thomas asks. ``Information must be protected just like a store with $100,000 worth of televisions in it.''
Among the customers at The Spy Exchange on one recent day is Nat Govea, a security consultant. He's scouting for electronic devices to help protect his clients' homes.
Another customer, an off-duty female state trooper, buys a pen that conceals a nasty-looking knife. ``I don't like carrying my big ol' gun in my little tiny purse,'' she says.