Meet the Last Generation of Typewriter Repairmen
June 1, 2010 8:39 AM   Subscribe takes a look back at these charming machines and visits three Bay Area workshops whose proprietors keep hearse-colored Remingtons and Underwoods from disappearing into the grave. (Typewriters previously)
posted by gman (32 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
All three of the shops that visited seemed to generate a comfortable living for their respective owners, supported by an eclectic clientele of collectors, design enthusiasts, prison inmates and tweenage girls.

I love old typewriters and believe there is a place in hell for people who key off the keys to make bracelets and desk placards. There is something so satisfying about that tactile feel and that snap sound as each letter is hit. You can feel, hear, and become part of your progress. You fall into a rhythm and the idea of falling short, of coming up blank, and being forced to sit in silence becomes its own motivator to continue. That you can't just delete entire swaths of writing in means you have to pul the page and start again. Each word is a commitment. I love writing this way.

This said, my spelling sucks. I love modern spelling check.

They are using that annoying tynt thing in that article.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:50 AM on June 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

"key off the keys" = tear off the keys.

I would have caught that on the final retyping.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:52 AM on June 1, 2010

I used to collect old typewriters until I realized I have nowhere to display them. So now I have seven or eight of them in my attic.

Those clear ones are awesome.
posted by Lucinda at 8:52 AM on June 1, 2010

I've never, ever liked manuals, but I got a Silver-Reed electric for my high school graduation and it served me quite well all through college. (I'd probably still have it if I hadn't lent it to a relative who subsequently sold it without my knowledge or permission; if I ever win the lottery, I expect this fellow to be one of the first in line with his hand out, and I'll get to remind him of that.)

I subsequently developed a serious infatuation on a friend's Selectric II, even as the lowering price of computers and printers conspired to drive typewriters into the La Brea Tar Pit of office equipment. I sometimes fantasize about how awesome it would have been to have an Apple ][ that used the teletype function on a Selectric II as a printer.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:52 AM on June 1, 2010

Oh, man, I love typewriter stores (and typewriters). Ace Typewriter in Portland is great. They completely refurbed my Smith-Corona Skyriter [not my machine or my pic] and put a new platen in my Hermes 3000. Their website is pretty much exactly what you would expect from an old-school typewriter store. Thanks for this, gman.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 8:55 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have found no more satisfying way to write then my IMB Selectric III. It hums reassuringly while I think, it fills the room with a crashing mechanical hammering when I type, & it rewards me with a crisp bell when I've finished a line.
posted by Hoenikker at 8:58 AM on June 1, 2010

er, IBM. I'm with cjorgensen, can we get another draft of this thread?
posted by Hoenikker at 9:01 AM on June 1, 2010

I love mechanical thingies. The sound of a typewriter is awesome.

But I'm going to be a contrarian and posit that the invention of word processing software ranks just below modern medicine in the pantheon of Things God Should Have Given Us In The First Place. The slowness, the waste of paper, the endless retyping, the jams, the replacing of ribbons....ugh.

Typewriters were meant for their current place: rarely-used curiosities.
posted by DU at 9:07 AM on June 1, 2010

Can we also talk about the horrible monstrosities that developed just before computers were really "ready to go" - the typewriters with bastardized word processing "software" shoe-horned into a tiny 3-line screen? When trying to type some simple information into a simple form became a user-experience nightmare. I had to use one of those things briefly and could not believe that people actually used those things day in and day out.
posted by amethysts at 9:18 AM on June 1, 2010

In watching Murder, She Wrote, I was reminded about how recently typewriters were the primary typing instrument, and I was both surprised and happy. I, like DU, am happy that letter and book writing is so easily editable, re-arrangeable and correctable, and instant spell-checking only makes writing that much easier with computers.

On the other hand, I would be forced to really think about everything I wrote. I'm constantly doubting my wording, tweaking this or that because I like the way things flow. But when I'm on a roll, I my fingers will fly, and I have no concern about minor typos or jammed keys.

Still, they're beautiful machines. I have one somewhere, and a few typewriter desks where it will eventually sit, once we have more space to display rarely used tools. For those who long for the experience of typewriting by way of the sounds, I wonder if you could add metal taps to the Model M to make the heavy plastic sound just a bit more substantial. Some programs play a "Ding" at the end of lines, and there was that "super-cool state-of-the-art typewriter sound effect" in ICQ, which was one of the first things I disabled, but if you liked that sort of thing, here are some typewriter SFX.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:28 AM on June 1, 2010

wow! who knew that they still make brother electronic daisywheel 'word processors'?
posted by msconduct at 9:30 AM on June 1, 2010

Awww, yes. The good old days; I remember them well. Oh, how I miss them.

Clack, clack, clack... damn, jammed keys. No problem, spin the wheel and and just paint on some white-out. Get the wheel lined up just, just right and we're rolling along again. (I don't remember a time before that great invention.) More than three spots on an important letter though, and you start over. There's more flour in a twenty page college essay than in a muffin, but it looks better than lots of blue pencil, right?

Some copies? Sure; carbon for up to four. Got to keep those pages tight, don't let it slip and the lines get out of line. More than four copies? Mimeograph it! Keep a razor blade on the desk to scrape the ink off the stencil. No prob.

December and May evenings cutting (with real scissors) and pasting (those glue sticks were great, better than Elemer's! Modern times!). Fill up the grocery bag with the little strips from between the paragraphs, and start the final draft... but the bio exam tomorrow too - concentrate, and don't think, don't revise, not now.

Oh, I really, really miss those good old days.
posted by Some1 at 9:30 AM on June 1, 2010

Gosh, I must have the world's largest collection of old Woodstock typewriters from the late 1920s and early 1930s, the products of nearly four decades of research into the Alger Hiss case. I used to get ribbons for them at the last typewriter repair place on the Upper West Side, which I don't think is there anymore. I'm certainly not.

The Woodstock wasn't an especially great machine, but the ones I have all still work but they're no fun to type on. Can't imagine it was back in the day either.
posted by jeffisme at 9:43 AM on June 1, 2010

For some reason I'm reminded of the story Gurdjieff related on how in the late 1890s he bilked the Russian army out of hundreds of rubles by "fixing" their "broken" typewriters by rewinding the ribbon. Apparently, the Russian officers had almost zero mechanical aptitude and could not see past the keys into the mechanisms behind them.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:02 AM on June 1, 2010

Ah, yes. Manual typewriters. I took three semesters of touch typing in junior high. The first two semesters were on manual units, the last was on electrics. I figured it was an easy A because I was studying classical piano at the time and already had good brain-to-finger communication established. I had no idea that keyboarding would become a primary form of communication for me, but then in 1982, who knew that the internet was going to happen?
posted by hippybear at 10:06 AM on June 1, 2010

Lee: "I have brought you a new typewriter that secretes two kinds of intoxicating fluids when it likes what you've written."
Frost: "Are you suggesting to trade back for your Clark Nova?"
Lee: "I think an exchange of hostages is the only viable scenario."
posted by juv3nal at 10:06 AM on June 1, 2010

Ahhhhhh! (runs fingertips lovingly over the keys of her 1930's Royal Red typewriter....)
posted by jeanmari at 10:13 AM on June 1, 2010

I guess there are pros and cons to every new technology. On one hand, for kids today, finding porn is as easy as circumventing the parental controls on the computer. But on the other they'll never know the joys of getting high from sniffing Wite-Out.*

*Tipex if you're a Brit.
posted by rhymer at 10:15 AM on June 1, 2010

I see beautiful and ancient manual typewriters mistreated in any number of fashions; it always seems like a waste to see some rusted-out hulk with black round keys pulled out of a room where the whole assembly has sat neglected for years. I started on a manual right around the time people got done wearing the marks off of those keys. Our typing teacher insisted on it before we would be allowed to use electrics, like learning to drive a stick shift before the luxury of an automatic.

Now electrics are out of style, too. Buy up supplies while you can. When a red IBM Selectric appeared on the loading dock for disposal soon after Thompson's death I took the event as a suggestion and lugged the beast home. I'm afraid to turn it on, so I keep it warm next to Hell's Angels and the Great Shark Hunt, with the whole tableau looming on a shelf above my lightning-struck Apple IIe. I bought ribbons but I don't doubt I'll need something else for this inefficient nostalgia, typewriter lust. Perhaps the only area in which they beat out word processors of all stripes is in simply letting you, and everyone within earshot, know that you are in fact turning nerve impulses into words. I cannot say typewriters are better in some objective fashion, only that I found them satisfying in a way that pushing electrons and rearranging magnetic fields is not.
posted by adipocere at 10:29 AM on June 1, 2010

MetaFilter: satisfying in a way that pushing electrons and rearranging magnetic fields is not.
posted by hippybear at 10:51 AM on June 1, 2010

Typewriters are terrible, and you can't write on them because they're not computers. You can't save anything and they won't correct your atrocious spelling and grammar. No great novel, short story, or work of investigative journalism was ever written on a typewriter. They make your hands hurt and make annoying noises. Besides, they're obsolete, and only a luddite would use one, and luddites are bad, because we're on the internet, for pete's sake.

I suggest you send these wretched machines to me for disposal, particularly if you've got an Alpina with a US keyboard. Those are especially bad. Only an embarrassing hipster or evil SUV-loving Republican would use one of those, so I'll gladly assist you in getting rid of preventing the horror and humiliation of possessing such an awful thing.
posted by sonascope at 11:31 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

"...getting rid of IT AND preventing..."

See, if I was typing this, I couldn't add this correction after the fact, except, like, with a pencil or something.
posted by sonascope at 11:35 AM on June 1, 2010

I wonder if any of them can help me fix my Selectric 251.
posted by scalefree at 11:35 AM on June 1, 2010

When a red IBM Selectric appeared on the loading dock for disposal soon after Thompson's death I took the event as a suggestion and lugged the beast home. I'm afraid to turn it on

You should really turn it on, just to keep it working. Selectrics don't like to sit idle, or at least that has been my experience with them. Used every day they'll last seemingly forever, but a few years of sitting idle and they get all gummed up and need to be cleaned out and relubricated. At the very least just turning it on and letting the motor spin for a few minutes is probably better than nothing.

I have two Selectrics, one brown and one in the classic IBM blue. One I grabbed under similar circumstances to yours, because it was sitting outside an office door next to the trash, while the other I basically inherited. I got the first one fixed up by a typewriter mechanic who specialized in Selectrics (if anyone ever needs typewriter repair in central Maine, drop me a note, I know a guy -- or at least, I used to) and it worked beautifully. Unfortunately, after a few years of sitting idle the carriage-advance system is gummed up again.

Anyway, I think they're like cars; if you want to keep them going it's best to take them out for a spin once in a while just to keep the wheels round.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:38 PM on June 1, 2010

my grandfather was a typewriter and adding-machine repairman in rural illinois, when i was growing up.

i remember his workshop, an inspiration for my own workshop, and particularly the smell of the old machines, which i have not yet achieved. i learned to type, and also i learned gregg shorthand from my grandfather, when i was about 5 years old.
posted by przxqgl at 2:12 PM on June 1, 2010

Tip: You can get more life out of a dried up fabric ribbon by lightly spraying it with a little WD-40.
posted by Daddy-O at 3:38 PM on June 1, 2010

My mother was a secretary all her working life, and one of the happiest moments in her life was when she got to purchase (!) her old Selectric II typewriter (she was getting a newer model).
I remember Hoenikker's beautifully worded "..crashing mechanical hammering" whenever she wrote a letter to anyone (and she wrote a lot of letters. It sounded like a machine gun (she was very fast).
I gave her Selectric to Goodwill last year, after it sat (neglected) in a storage cubicle for three years. I hope someone gave it a good home.
posted by dbmcd at 3:44 PM on June 1, 2010

I used to collect old typewriters until I realized I have nowhere to display them. So now I have seven or eight of them in my attic.

I have this exact same problem. I love them as mechanical contrivances -- all the gears & springs and cogs just ignite something in my heart. I picked them up in junk shops pretty regularly until I ran out of space as well.

In fact, I transitioned directly from a 1935 Royal to a Mac Performa in about 1997 (about 4 years after the work transition to computer). I really love the visceral feeling of driving the keys home on a manual typewriter, and have just in the last two years or so with my new gumdrop keyboard, finally gotten out of the habit of just beating the crap out of my computer keyboards.

I really need to go get the rollers resurfaced & stock up on ribbons while there's still time. Austin still has a curmudgeonly repair shop called Mr. Wizard's (no website, natch) who will spruce up the things.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:41 PM on June 1, 2010

Ahhhhhh! (runs fingertips lovingly over the keys of her 1930's Royal Red typewriter....)

Oh, damn, that is nice. I've got one like it, except it's black, and kinda broken. Those were supposed to be "portable," like a laptop. Heh.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:47 PM on June 1, 2010

First off, thanks to Nothing... and like it for informing me of where I can get my Skyriter refurbished.

Second, I'll add my voice to the chorus of those who took a class in typing (and not "keyboarding") in high school. Good grief, it feels absurdly quaint and old-fashioned to see it spelled out like that, as if I had taken a class in candle making or butter churning. Anyway, I forget the teacher's name but I remember how he claimed that knowing how to type had saved his life because, when he had been drafted during the height of the Vietnam war, he was assigned as a clerk instead of to the infantry. I also remember, even from this distance, the way he had us put our fingers on the home row, wrists elevated, and follow along as he chanted the cadence "A S D F J K L SEM, A S D F J K L SEM, A S D F J K L SEM..."
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:37 PM on June 1, 2010

I have a portable manual that I'm saving for after the apocalypse, when I will rent it out for canned food to people who want to write their memoirs.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:13 AM on June 2, 2010

Stock up on ribbons, then.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 8:56 AM on June 2, 2010

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