Part of a series: Scene & Heard: Doing Business
What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. In this third edition of our ongoing series, we visited unusual longtime businesses in Knoxville to simply record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city. These may be familiar places we've all heard about, or curious things that may surprise even their neighbors—but they're all Knoxville, and they're all worth getting to know better.
A little tacky, a little '60s, the squat brick building a few stoplights down Chapman Highway from downtown is so ordinary it hardly stands out at all—and maybe that's the message here. Because beneath the giant billboard trumpeting "Ye Olde Steak House, 4 miles," behind the sign cautioning that the owner sleeps on premises four days a week, beyond the '70s standard-issue laminate wood desk with a guy and a laptop, a phone and a container of 411 Motor Speedway 2010 schedules, Spy Teck Supply is selling subterfuge. Sneakiness. Things that look like ordinary household objects but are actually recording or videotaping nannies, burglars, sexual harassers, errant spouses.
Like the brown teddy bear that masks a wireless camera, $249, down from $379. Or the ink pen that's a video recorder, activated when you flick the clip. When you take off the top, it plugs into your computer's USB port to download up to three hours of recordings. The smoke detectors in the corner are also cameras, as are the Marlboro and Marlboro Light boxes next to the pens on the shelf.
"They used to be our biggest sellers," says Gary Glarner, a stocky guy with a trim gray beard and a "nothing fazes me," step-by-step instruction manner of speaking. "Then they started changing all the laws about where you can smoke in public, and they don't sell anymore. But we'll discount them and someone will buy them soon."
Glarner's the manager and lead salesperson at the store, has been for three years. The business was originally begun 11 years ago by longtime Knoxville private eye Gary Litton, who's now 70, and his wife, Kim. Their aim was to provide a do-it-yourself alternative for those who couldn't afford a private investigator's services, or who wanted to cut costs by assisting the pros they hired with surveillance, and the two opened up sales to the public around seven years ago. Back then, most sales were to businesses trying to crack down on theft, and to law enforcement officers.
Not so these days, Glarner relates as he pads around the dingy tan carpet in this not-at-all glamorous repository of cell phone/walkie talkie looking stuff, with a room lined with televisions jutting off to one side. "We sell surveillance more to homeowners now—it just blows my mind," he says. "When I first started three years ago, we'd hear of a business getting broken into and hop into the car and head over there like ambulance chasers."
Today, the business comes to them, through the doors of the Monday-Friday establishment with its potted prayer plant and poster of Barney Fife. Litton doesn't even have a website, isn't interested, so guys in work trucks swagger in from the pockmarked asphalt parking lot, women with polished nails and sensible business skirts push open the door a bit more timidly. "The majority of our business is spouses trying to confirm infidelity, and that's neck and neck with home security," says Glarner.
Glarner learned from Litton, who's been a private detective for 40 years. "I used to be in the real estate business, an entrepreneur," says Glarner. "In 2007 I took a hit, and was blessed to see the writing on the wall. I got out, and here I am. But it took me forever to learn most of this stuff."
That's hard to imagine once Glarner starts the information flow about, say, a tiny wall-mounted camera that can be adjusted to read license plates, or the pre-amplified digital voice recorders that even at $199 a pop are best sellers at the store. "They're modified, you can't buy them at a regular store," he says. "They're about 10 times as sensitive as an ordinary recorder." He paces from the glass counter back to the entrance, stands at the Lion's Club Double Bubble machine. "One, two, three, four." He strides back, rewinds, and sure enough, the recorder has caught his whisper from some 40 feet away. "They're really cool," he says.
Other stuff in the store is cool, too, like the $7,900 bullet-proof surveillance equipment that a SWAT team or bounty hunter might use. It relies on these mini-bowling ball looking devices the user tosses out to survey, relaying video and audio back to a sweet computer screen set-up even as the surveillance team moves up to 100 yards away.
Some of the stuff is just bizarre, though, like the boxes of Semen Spy stacked low in one case, looking like so many magnifying glass kits for kids. "It detects male testosterone, and tells a spouse if you've been with someone else," says Glarner unapologetically and without embarrassment. "The crime lab uses the same sort of thing."
Spy Teck also traffics in other adultery-identifying devices, which Glarner says sell so well because Baby Boomers are cheating and divorcing—and because Internet chats make it so much easier to find someone new. "You don't have to go to a bar anymore," he says.
Besides cameras and audio recorders, there are "back trackers" priced $299-$349. These attach to a car and when you retrieve them and plug them into a USB port on your computer, will tell you where the car went, where it stopped, and for how long. "You can also have real time, live trackers, and many people use them when they're tracking a teen, when they're not sure their kid is telling them the truth," says Glarner. "They'll tell you where the car is in real time, but they cost more and you have to pay activation and satellite usage charges."
Several products turn the tables, like the Spy Finder that alerts people if they're being observed surreptitiously. "We sell a lot of these to ladies, like if they go to tanning beds, you push a button and if it flicks infrared, you know a camera lens is on you—whether it's turned off or on."
Who buys these "am I being watched?" devices? Some of the people are a little paranoid, says Glarner. "Our devices still give them peace of mind though." Others suspect their estranged spouse of setting up surveillance. And maybe some criminal customers? "Sure, that's a good possibility," says Glarner easily.
But mostly, Spy Teck sells to people whose possessions are being stolen and while they have a suspect, they can't say for sure who it is. Or their spouse might be cheating, or they want to find out if someone is watching them. Why ask out loud when the technology can provide irrefutable proof?
"That's just the way the world is these days," says Glarner, pausing to watch a feed from a lens trained on the line of traffic out front. "It's unbelievable."