One of America's last typewriter repairmen
When Mason Whitlock started repairing typewriters, Herbert Hoover was president and the Empire State Building was under construction.
New haven, conn.
Manson Whitlock peers into the typewriter on the table. It's a big avocado-green IBM Selectric from the '60s. Something is jammed and pieces are scattered around the machine. Eventually, he finds what he's looking for – a screw has fallen in, causing the type mechanism to stick. Out goes the screw. Using a spring-hook, an implement that looks like it could come from a dentist's office, he reassembles the typewriter – plastic cover plates, the metal paper tray that directs paper onto the main roller, and the cylindrical rubber platen itself. Then he taps some keys, examining how each letter moves.Skip to next paragraph
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"Good enough. For government standards anyhow." He draws a smiley-face on the repair order, and calls the client on his old black rotary phone.
Mr. Whitlock is 90, and though he looks younger, his tweed jacket, silk tie, and sweater betray him as a man from a different era. His face is lined and friendly, crowned by thinning combed-back hair that recalls Lyndon Johnson's without the grease. The ring and pinkie fingers of his right hand are gnarled, but that doesn't keep him from his job.
Whitlock probably has been repairing typewriters longer than almost anyone in the US. When he started in 1930, Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight was a fresh memory, Herbert Hoover was president, and the Empire State Building was under construction.
Whitlock's Typewriter Shop is jammed with tools, books, machines, and memories that have accumulated over the past 77 years. After his 1990 "retirement," when he moved upstairs from the larger storefront below, Whitlock filled a dumpster with typewriters and flotsam. Still his shelves are laden with repair catalogues, a bust of Mark Twain (the first author to turn in a typed manuscript), "A Treasury of Jewish Humor," and the 1978 New Haven telephone directory. There are boxes full of platens, type-balls, type-slugs, and typebars.
And of course there are the typewriters themselves, in various states of cannibalization. Some gleam as they might have in 1920. There's an old black Underwood – the kind you'd see in a Howard Hawks movie. A German sky-blue Olympia built like a tank. Seven strains of electric Smith-Corona, four breeds of IBM Selectric, and one exotic Oliver No. 5, its typebars clustered like mouse ears on either side of the roller.
Whitlock says that he has repaired around 300,000 typewriters in his career. The avocado IBM was job No. 300,001. "If you put the typewriters I've repaired end to end, it would take days to drive past them," he boasts. Cars are as modern a motif as there is in his life – a painting of his old 1953 Jaguar XK120 decorates his living room (he sold the car itself to pay his late wife Nancy's medical bills).
"Typewriters don't go vroom, vroom," he concedes, noting that's one reason his two sons didn't follow him into the business.
But even cars might be a little too modern for Whitlock: "Airplanes, automobiles, television, computers; they've changed the world too quickly. It was nice 75 years ago!"
Whitlock has outlived most of his contemporaries – both the typewriters and the people. His older brother, Reverdy, is the only one of Whitlock's five brothers still alive. Reverdy and Manson worked together at their father's general store, which was a New Haven institution long before either was born.
Clifford Everett Hale Whitlock started his business out of a bike garage next door to the Skull and Bones tomb (the exclusive Yale secret society). At 15, he ambitiously billed himself "bookseller to Yale." Manson's name, too, came from ambition – he was named after a bank executive so that his father could "stand in good" with the bank, he says. A promotional pamphlet from this era shows the shop, dark and wood-paneled, every inch the ancient general store. It aimed to anticipate all needs, advertising, "Yale Men, your Telegrams will be received till 8 p.m. at Whitlock's Book Shop."
By 1930, when Manson started working at his father's store, it had moved to Broadway Avenue, New Haven's main commercial block. The store always had a big typewriter section, with window displays of the mouse-eared Olivers. Sometimes a company representative would come and awe onlookers by "drawing" pictures with the No. 5. He taught young Whitlock how to draw a line of soldiers across the page using an 'O' for the head, a slash for the body, hyphens for arms, and a caret for legs. "It was pleasing for little minds," Whitlock reminisces. He was interested in mechanics, so when the time came to work in the shop, he gravitated toward typewriters. He was never formally trained. He says he learned by "osmosis."