Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Spike Darts, Stun Guns: `Spy Exchange' Has It All SAFETY FOR SALE

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Spike Darts, Stun Guns: `Spy Exchange' Has It All SAFETY FOR SALE

Article excerpt

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. …

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