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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."