Soft Return

Keyed by young enthusiasts, the typewriter makes a minor comeback.

Soft Return

An Underwood No. 5. Photo courtesy of Richard Polt.

“Ten years ago I saw my clientele getting older and business was starting to wane,” says Bill Wahl, of Mesa Typewriter Exchange, who has been repairing typewriters at his Mesa, Arizona shop for close to four decades. Worse yet, Wahl had long since become bored with his life’s work. “Twenty years ago everyone had a typewriter and there was no romance. It was like repairing lawnmowers, and there is nothing cool about repairing lawnmowers.” But young people — mostly high school and college kids — have breathed new life into the business, he says, thanks to their enthusiasm for the distinctive, idiosyncratic typewriters of yesteryear. Never mind that his young customers are tech savvy and own all the latest and greatest devices. “Manual typewriters feel unique and personal to them, and that’s an identity a self-starter can deal with.”

Typewriter Repair
Most of Wahl’s customers aren’t old enough to recall the days when typewriters were indispensable writing tools. Until the late 1980s students were still producing papers on typewriters and every office had one or two or fifty machines. “It was around 1986 that computers really started moving in” says Tom Furrier, 57, who has sold and repaired typewriters at Cambridge Typewriter in Arlington, Massachusetts for thirty-two years. “I can remember how shocked I was that within three years computers wiped out the typewriter industry. By 1990 eighty percent of all the repair shops were out of business.”

Yet Furrier loved typewriters and made the decision to not only stay in the business, but to double down, so to speak. “My boss retired in 1990 and sold the shop to me. I can remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is a smart move.’ ” Indeed, for a while it looked like a costly mistake. “There were a few different times when I was within a whisker of going out of business, but I hated the thought of giving up the shop so much that I always said one more week, one more month. Thank God I did,” he concludes, noting that the first signs of a turnaround came in 2002, which to him felt like “coming back from the dead.”

Today business at Cambridge Typewriter is strong. The shop — whose walls are lined with dozens of framed typewriter advertisements from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — is filled with hundreds of typewriters, many brought in by customers for maintenance and repair. “I’m repairing about seven hundred machines a year,” offers Furrier, and “sales [of used machines] go up a little more every year.” And in between repair jobs he finds time to update his blog, Life in a Typewriter Shop, in which he shares stories about the people and “beautiful machines” that come through his door.

Meanwhile, at Mesa Typewriter Exchange — which has been on the same street in Mesa since Wahl’s grandfather started the business in the late 1940s — the story is much the same. The showroom floor is cluttered with old manual machines, which coexist alongside once-ubiquitous IBM electrics. In keeping with the days-gone-by aura, there isn’t a word processor or modern office product in sight. For his part, Wahl doesn’t even own a cell phone (much less a smartphone), describing himself as a “die-hard holdout,” a trait he shares with Furrier.

The business attracts a steady stream of patrons, in part because there are relatively few people who still repair typewriters, a state of affairs that inspired a new documentary titled The Typewriter (in the 21st Century). Asked how many repair shops remain in the United States, Wahl doesn’t even venture a guess, though he notes that “there are more places fixing typewriters than an Internet search might imply,” alluding to the fact that not every repair shop maintains a Web presence.

Like Furrier, Wahl does a lot of work for customers who buy old manual typewriters on eBay or Craigslist, or at yard sales or flea markets, and then bring them in to have them reconditioned. “There is not a lot that can go wrong with a manual typewriter,” reminds Wahl, noting that common problems include a carriage that is sluggish or sticking keys — and that a typical repair costs $65-$150.

But Wahl also does his share of repairs on electric machines, which tend to get out of alignment and need regular maintenance. “People would be surprised at the number of businesses that still keep an IBM Selectric II or a Wheelwriter around,” he says, the former a user-friendly model made between 1961 and the early 1980s that was the most popular typewriter for many years. “Companies that once had forty or fifty machines now keep a few around for odds and ends,” he continues, noting that he just recently fixed five typewriters for Honeywell, and always has an IBM Selectric II ready to sell (cost: $195-250).

People might be even more surprised that typewriters are still commonly utilized by the likes of police departments and government agencies. “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department still uses typewriters, because they have forms that they have to fill out in triplicate and typewriters are the easiest way to do it,” says Gary Nicholson, co-producer of The Typewriter (in the 21st Century). And the New York City Police Department spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year buying new machines and maintaining old ones.

Predictably, the greatest obstacle to repairing typewriters is finding parts. “I can still order parts for some of the later IBM’s,” says Wahl, but mostly he cannibalizes the hundreds of old machines he keeps around for precisely that reason. Furrier also has a “graveyard” of a few hundred that he strips for parts, which allows him to “repair ninety-nine percent of everything that comes in,” he says.

The Typosphere
Repairs aside, what keeps the business interesting for Wahl in particular are the “almost anti-culture” pre-teens, teens and college students who are, he says, “fascinated” by manual typewriters. They refer to themselves as typospherians — a term of endearment that describes those who use, collect and frequently obsess over typewriters. They consider themselves members of the typosphere, a global community of typewriter geeks who have been known to hold informal get-togethers referred to as type-ins, and also commonly engage in typecasting, which involves generating typewritten messages and posting them online, reflecting their sense of ease with both old and new technology. Matt Cidoni, a teenaged typospherian from New Jersey who operates the blog Adventures in Typewriterdom, actually signs his typecasts with messages like: “Sent from my Royal Quiet-Deluxe” or “Sent from my 1962 Olympia SG-1,” a nod to the “Sent from my iPhone [or iPad]” email signature.

Richard Polt, a typewriter collector who has operated The Classic Typewriter Page since 1995, thinks he can explain the rise of the typosphere. “Everybody needs something to rebel against. So people who have grown up with computers all their lives are starting to question them and are looking for alternatives. I think the emphasis on efficiency and speed and constant acceleration is something that people are getting tired of.”

But privacy is another important factor. “Everything you do online is being recorded and analyzed by somebody,” reminds Polt, while typewritten communications are private, unless you choose to make them public.

Young people also seem to enjoy the fact that being seen in public with a portable manual typewriter is a surefire conversation starter. “A lot of kids brag to me about the positive feedback they get from strangers when they whip out their typewriter in Starbucks and start typing,” begins Furrier. “Even shop owners say, ‘I miss that sound. Feel free to come back anytime.’ ”

But arguably the most powerful selling point is that a typewriter is only good for one thing — typing. Polt, a professor at Xavier University, says he provides feedback on student papers via typewritten comments. “I write a number in the margin of the paper that is keyed to a number on the typewritten sheet. It makes the task a little more fun for me. And there are no distractions when you are on a typewriter. You pretty much have to write,” he says.

Buying a Typewriter
“A lot of people have the mindset that a typewriter is a typewriter is a typewriter and that they are all the same. But they vary a lot,” emphasizes Wahl, noting that a lot of people buy online without coming into the shop and trying out different models to try to discern which might best address their needs.

“I’m not bitter about people buying on eBay or Craigslist, because sooner or later they are going to end up with me selling them a ribbon or fixing their machine. I just want to educate them,” he continues. “They will come down with their typewriter to get a ribbon and start typing on other machines and realize that they feel or print a lot different than the one they bought. It’s not always that first purchase that they feel comfortable with.”

“A lot of people will go on eBay and pick something up, but in the long run that often ends up costing them more,” concurs Furrier, who has a few pointers for assessing the condition of a prospective purchase. “Make sure you can roll in a piece of paper. In some old machines the feed roll has flattened out and in some cases you can’t replace it. Make sure every key works and that the carriage goes back and forth. If you can do all that you’ve got a decent machine and no matter what else is wrong you can probably get it fixed,” he says.

To be sure, there are plenty of pre-owned models to choose from. In Wahl’s shop, prices range from $95-$500, depending on the look of the machine, style, condition and print quality. He offers a surprisingly extensive array of antiques, “most of which I paid ten bucks for, because people know I’m here and don’t want to go through the trouble of selling their old machine,” he says.

But don’t expect to find any new typewriters for sale at either Mesa Typewriter Exchange or Cambridge Typewriter. Wahl hasn’t stocked new machines in four years because almost all of his requests are for used machines. “Smith Corona was the last brand I was selling new, and they have stopped production,” he says.

For his part, Furrier hasn’t sold new typewriters in fifteen years. “No one is making new manual typewriters like what the kids are looking for, but there are a few companies that still manufacture electronic typewriters,” he says, referring to Brother and Nakajima, to name two.

The Future of Typewriters, Repair Shops
The comeback of the manual typewriter begs two questions. Will this be a lasting trend? And how long will there be repairmen capable of keeping the machines in working order?

In regards to the latter, Wahl says he hasn’t had someone working alongside him since 1992 and that there’s no apprentice in sight, despite the fact that a few young people have approached him about learning how to do repairs. (There aren’t enough hours in the day for him to teach, do repairs and operate the business, he says.) Furrier doesn’t have an apprentice either, though he says he is “really thinking hard” about setting aside time to teach a typewriter repair class.

As to whether manual typewriters will still be of interest to young people five or ten years from now, Furrier opines: “What’s happening now is going to keep rolling. I don’t see the bottom falling out for a long time.”

Others aren’t so sure, though. “Typewriters do seem to be in the zeitgeist right now,” offers Polt, but he says he has noticed a backlash against typing in public because it has gotten trendy among hipsters. “Part of the hipster stereotype is that they have a typewriter. So I’m a bit concerned that this will just be a fad,” he concludes.

Meanwhile, the asking price for collectible typewriters like the Hansen Writing Ball continues to rise, with one recently offered on eBay — minimum bid $106,000. “It’s a Danish typewriter that was the first to be successfully mass produced,” advises Polt — the typewriter equivalent of the Honus Wagner baseball card. “They have sold for as much as a hundred-thousand dollars,” he continues, before noting that the Writing Ball is the inspiration for the name of his blog.

Regardless, both Wahl and Furrier envision themselves staying in the typewriter business into retirement. “For years I’ve told everybody that I would be the last one standing,” quips Furrier, noting that he is already “one of the last guys standing — certainly the only typewriter-only shop in eastern New England.”

Wahl expresses a similar sentiment, saying, “There is not a lot of money to be made, but I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I almost want to hold on to see if I can be the last one left. It will be fun to see if I can crank this out for another twenty years.”

See also:
The Rise and Fall of Handwriting