Adventures in typewriterland

A new generation discovers the delights of an old technology.

By

It was just a brief exchange with my niece when I was down south for her high school graduation in early June.

"Typewriters? Sure, I think we could find some place that sells them."

And so "visit a typewriter shop" made it onto the program for Meredith's subsequent visit to Boston a few weeks later. A little Googling, and voilà, there we were at a shop that sells and services antique typewriters. Actually, "antique" may be redundant.

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She faced an abundant, though not overwhelming, selection of vintage machines from the 1930s and '40s. These included a couple of Royals that were older brothers of my grandfather's typewriter.

Just about all his written communications, other than his signature on birthday cards, issued forth from that Royal portable. Grandpa's typewriter was part of him, essential to who he was. And these machines even smelled like Grandpa's.

It was time for a test drive. The QWERTY keyboard was familiar. But the technique needed for striking the keys was not. Meredith's first attempt at typing with the light touch that works on a computer led to a crush of tiny hammers. The shop owner moved in to demonstrate the crisp, one-at-a-time approach a typewriter calls for.

"You'll have to use the lowercase 'l' for a one," I pointed out. It seemed a somewhat retrograde step. I remembered how hard it was to break that habit once keyboards came with a numeral "1."

Then the proprietor chimed in to point out that she'd also have to make her exclamation points by striking the apostrophe and then backspacing to insert a period. "It makes a pretty good exclamation point," he said with a certain understated pride.

Like many other older machines, typewriters wear their ingenuity on their sleeves: the merciful margin-release button, rescuer of those who fail to heed the bell warning of the approach of the end of the line; the elegant little levers whose functions my fingers remembered even when my mind did not.

The shop owner told us that many of his customers are teenagers and recent graduates. Many others are writers. They tend to care less about how a machine looks than how it works. And they do put their machines through a workout. For them, typing is part of the ritual of writing, as the fountain pen or the laptop is for others.

I'm glad to have traded the relentless linearity of the typewriter for the free form of the computer. But I learned from that linearity as a young reporter. And I understand how the typewriter's rhythm supports a steady pattern of inspiration and execution.

Meredith walked out of the shop the proud owner of a Royal dating to the early 1930s. And it was soon put to the test. That evening she was on the phone with someone back home when, to put it diplomatically, something came up. It was an issue she needed to think through – in writing. So she pressed her wonderful new/old typewriter into service to help her navigate the roiling seas of young adult decisionmaking.

The shop owner had warned it would take her a month or so to master the typewriter technique. But I could hear improvement that first evening. As she punched away, I thought how familiar that music was – the clatter of the keys, the bell, the sounds of the carriage return. And it wasn't just word processing. It was thought processing.

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