More than 30 years ago, as occasionally happens, I was in the right place at the right time. I invested $20 in a piece of writing history – a 1935 vintage Royal portable typewriter. In the intervening three decades I have schlepped my Royal from one address to the next, long ago having put aside any pretense of actually using the machine that I had once envisioned employing, Dashiell Hammett-like, to write a sparse novel about a hard boiled, but loveable detective. My Royal quietly collected dust, became a joke for those who noticed it sitting on my desk – “pretty old school, Johnson” – and an object of genuine curiosity for any person under 30.
Tom Hanks – the actor Tom Hanks – prompted me to fall in love again with my Royal. Turns out Mr. Hanks collects typewriters and obviously loves the technology as he wrote recently in the New York Times. “I use a manual typewriter — and the United States Postal Service — almost every day,” Hanks wrote in an August essay. “My snail-mail letters and thank-you notes, office memos and to-do lists, and rough — and I mean very rough — drafts of story pages are messy things, but the creating of them satisfies me like few other daily tasks.”
I have rediscovered the same pleasure.
Although you can’t really say I had abused my mostly unused Royal over the decades I’ve owned it, it was in serious need of cleaning and a tune-up. A new ribbon was in order and a couple of keys stuck over and over. What to do? Like everything else these days one takes to Google to find a service, if it still exists, that once you could look up in the Yellow Pages. My online look-up of typewriter repair lead me to the perfectly named “Ace Typewriter & Equipment Company” on Lombard Street in Portland, Oregon.
The Yelp review says Ace is “the only typewriter repair shop” on the west coast, which may be a little like saying you run the only vacuum tube business in North America, but one step in the door and I was a goner. The dimly lit front rooms were cluttered with old machines. The air was thick with smells of oil and ink. The extremely pleasant and superbly knowledgeable repair guy was certainly old school. He wrote my repair order on a ticket pad, said it would cost $55 for the tune-up, including a new ribbon, and I should check back in a month. “Do you need a deposit?” I asked. “Nope,” was his reply. If any place could make my once very serviceable Royal sing again this was that place.
A month later I was back to collect my lovely refurbished clacker. The unique Royal “touch control” worked perfectly and the years of accumulated dust and grime had been polished away. The new ribbon transferred the ink perfectly. Well, not perfectly, since using a 75 year old typewriter requires a certain discipline that years of tapping on a PC keyboard allows you to forget. You must strike the keys with some passion and, of course, you need to strike the right keys and that, I soon discovered, will require a little practice. I never mastered, even with a high school typing class – remember those – the “touch method.” In the days when a typewriter was the only instrument of choice in the newsroom I pecked away, as I imagined William L. Shirer or Edward R. Murrow once did, with two fingers and both thumbs. It feels good to do it again.
Spend a little time on the web and amazingly you’ll discover a world of typewriter lovers out there. A wonderful paper, card and printing store in Portland – Oblation – celebrated International Typewriter Day this summer by setting up machines on the sidewalk and supplying the paper for passersby. Oblation’s owner Jennifer Rich told the Oregonian, “A type-written love note to somebody or a poem is something you can’t get just anywhere.” Yup.
The guy at Ace said my trusty Royal has been dubbed the Kit Kittredge model because the 10-year-old heroine of The American Girl stories used one in the movie, which I confess I missed, and he said he gets calls every week from some parent looking for such a typewriter for a youngster. That may be one of the more gratifying things I’ve heard in a long, long time.
“Short of chiseled words in stone, few handmade items last longer than a typed letter,” Tom Hanks wrote, “for the ink is physically stamped into the very fibers of the paper, not layered onto the surface as with a laser-printed document or the status-setting IBM Selectric — the machine that made the manual typewriter obsolete. Hit the letter Y on an East German Erika typewriter — careful now, it’s where the Z key is on an English language keyboard because German uses the Z more often — and a hammer strikes an ink-stained ribbon, pressing the dye into the paper where it will be visible for perpetuity unless you paint it over or burn the page.”
I’m expecting to hear that my embrace of my Royal – it’s right here at my right elbow – has taken me from “old school” to “eccentric.” I’m OK with that. Some things old can be new again and besides I have a few letters I need to write.