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The disappearing allure of the safe deposit box

Only two of six branches at Belmont Savings Bank still offer safe deposit boxes, and the bank says demand has slowed.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Only two of six branches at Belmont Savings Bank still offer safe deposit boxes, and the bank says demand has slowed.

It’s the little box that holds some of the most prized possessions in a bank: customers’ indispensable documents, their heirloom jewelry, or even their family’s antique vase.

But the safe deposit box, once a staple of any bank branch, has itself become an antique. Banks are reporting that safe deposit box use is on the decline, with occupancy rates dropping quickly as customers buy home safes, digitize and store documents electronically, and, in this era of conspicuous consumption, prefer to display their valuables rather than stash them away for special occasions.

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Jerry Pluard, the owner of Safe Deposit Box Insurance Coverage LLC, an Illinois company that insures the contents of the boxes, estimates that nearly half — 45 percent — of safe deposit boxes in the country are empty today. Boston-based Santander Bank says demand has slipped so much that it won’t even include safe deposit boxes when it builds new branches.

Belmont Savings Bank said that only two of its six branches still offer safe deposit boxes, and at the bank’s headquarters 10 percent of the approximately 500 boxes are empty.

“The demand has slowed up,” said Hal Tovin, the chief operating officer at Belmont Savings. “It’s the nature of the world.”

It wasn’t always this way. Customers used to wait months and even years to get their little share of storage space — the size of a post office box up to a small carry-on suitcase — in the bank’s vault. For an annual cost of $35 to $300, depending on the size of the box, they also got the high-roller treatment.

Customers had to sign in to get access to the cement-encased sanctum guarded by a metal door several inches thick. Once the box is taken out of the vault, using two sets of keys, one belonging to the customer, and the other to the bank, the box owner is escorted to a private room and left alone to examine the contents.

The mystery of safe deposit boxes and their contents proved alluring to Hollywood, which featured them in many a caper movie. Amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne stockpiled his fake passports, cash, and gun in a safe deposit box in the “The Bourne Identity.” The esteemed founder of a Manhattan bank hid his Nazi-era secrets in his safe deposit box in “Inside Man.” And “The Bank Job” focused on safe deposit boxes that held compromising photos of British royalty and government officials.

In reality though, safe deposit boxes have been an affordable way for customers to protect the mundane (birth certificates) to the rare (baseball card collections and coins) to the precious (gemstones) from fire, flood, other disasters, and yes, even prying eyes. One client of insurer Pluard stores John Wayne’s cowboy hat from the movie “Rio Grande” in his box.

James Avtges started renting a safe deposit box 50 years ago and continues to stop by Belmont Savings Bank once every few weeks to check on his family’s property deeds and jewelry. “I find it very comforting knowing that things are safe from fire,” said Avtges, 85, a Belmont resident.

Younger customers, however, mostly find it a hassle. Already using branches less for all services, they don’t want to make a special trip just to get access to their belongings, said Bob Hedges, a managing director at Alix Partners, a global consulting firm based in New York City. Only 6 percent of bank customers rent a safe deposit box, and one third of those customers are over 65, according to recent survey by the firm.

Safe deposit boxes now rank along coin-counters as lowest-used bank service, Hedges said. At Boston Lock & Safe Co., one of the oldest locksmiths in the country, two or three customers come in every week who want to ditch their safe deposit box for a home safe, said David Stoia, the company’s owner.

“People would rather have their stuff in their home,” Stoia said.

Still, safe deposit boxes are unlikely to disappear soon. The customers who use and want safe deposit boxes are ones that banks yearn to keep because they have loans, mortgages, and assets, making them prime prospects for the banks to sell higher profit services such as wealth management, analysts said.

Bank of America has done away with boxes at a number of locations. But last year, when it built its 12,000-square-foot flagship branch in the Back Bay, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, it included a brightly lit room tucked in the back. Behind the sealed glass door were rows of silver safe deposit boxes, like jewel cases, stacked from floor to ceiling.

“It’s based on a local demand,” said T.J. Crawford, the bank’s spokesman. “Like any bank offering.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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