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.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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."

Reverdy Whitlock took over the family bookstore in the '40s. The brothers didn't get along very well, and the split was acrimonious. Reverdy recounts coming to the store one Sunday to find Manson loading typewriters into an old wood-paneled station wagon and moving them to a storefront around the corner. Manson just smiles ruefully and says that he has a much better relationship with his brother now.

The move allowed Whitlock to expand – at its height, the store stocked 400 to 500 machines and employed six mechanics. Success enabled Whitlock to keep the older manuals to himself and delegate the electric typewriters to others.

A 1910 Oliver is the oldest machine that Whitlock keeps in his shop today. Despite its ears, it is fairly conventional compared with other early typewriter designs. There was the Hammonia, Germany's first writing machine, which looked like a bread-slicer. The Blickensderfer No. 5, which had keys that stuck out in all directions, making it look, in Whitlock's words, "sort of like a centipede." And, best of all, the Williams, which had a "grasshopper" type-action in which a jointed typebar kicked up, over, and down onto the platen roller.

Today, despite his former objections, Whitlock works mostly on electric and electronic typewriters (electrics are mechanical but run by a motor; electronics have computer chips). That's all people bring. There isn't any point in keeping manuals other than for decoration and company.

***

One afternoon, Whitlock lets me take apart an electric Smith-Corona. Its motor connects to a spinning ridged shaft. A key, when pressed, catches onto a ridge of the shaft, whose spin kicks the typebars forward against the page.

Whitlock tells me to remove the typebars, which look like spring-loaded frog legs. I try one, and he says "Never force anything." Right. I try harder. "You're forcing!" he says, taking it in his fingers and, with a flick of his wrist, disconnecting the bar from its linkage to the key.

I take the next typebar and flick my wrist. Nothing happens. He takes it and humiliates me again. I end up having to use two hands to remove the bars one by one.

Whitlock tells me to look at the escapement, the jumble of gears that moves the carriage from one letter to the next. He tells me how it works; I'm completely lost. He smiles and tries to phrase it differently. I poke at the escapement with my screwdriver. He prods it too, didactically, and presses the spacebar a few times. Finally I understand: It resists the carriage's tension; it doesn't actually cause movement. A few days after I destroyed his typewriter, he tells me that if I'd come 20 years ago, he'd have given me a job.

After my repair lesson, I want a typewriter of my own. I tell him that I've been looking for one on eBay. He has never used or even seen the Internet, but he has heard of the site and is intrigued.

So, disregarding the first thing he ever told me – "You work a typewriter, a computer works you" – I bring in my shiny silver laptop and we sit down to scope out the market.

"I'll be darned," he says, when 1,782 items pop up. "Let's see that Remington. Remington Rand No. 5. Clumsy, not as nice a feel as Royals."

I ask if he can see the computer well enough. "It's got such a clear screen!" he marvels. "I had thought it would be blurry like a TV!" He smiles and looks at the $10.49 Corona No. 3 I've clicked. "Goodness gracious. Unbelievable. They were made during the First World War. The last one I had I sold for $100. Surprising that they're so cheap."

He takes a shot at moving the mouse around. "Underwood – hmm, that's not old, '40s or '50s. They're calling that an antique?"

It's as though eBay is an electronic Metro-North for Whitlock, who used to go to New York City pawnshops weekly to buy old hocked models.

The next day I bring my computer again. The wireless connection flickers, then sputters out – eBay won't load. I fiddle with it the way he fiddles with typewriters – pressing buttons, shaking it, cajoling it. Whitlock asks if there is a cattle prod button to startle it into compliance. I give up; there's nothing I can do to fix it.

Whitlock looks at me. "Well, it was neat," he says quietly. "But I'll stick to typewriters."

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