Last April, in front of a small storefront in Arlington, it became a common sight to see young people sitting on a bench, portable typewriters upon their knees. The old 20th-century sound of a typewriter’s clackety-clack filled the spring air. Cambridge Typewriter was experiencing a fortunate consequence of the COVID era: a sales boom.
“I was selling on the sidewalk,” said Tom Furrier, longtime owner of the Boston area’s only typewriter store and repair shop. “Customers stood in the open doorway, pointed to a model, and I brought it out. Then I wiped it off and brought out their next choice. I was going through a lot of disinfectant and selling a lot of machines. I was busy beforehand, but COVID raised my business by 40 percent.”
Many of the new customers were in their teens and 20s. “Some literally skip out of the store, they’re so giddy,” Furrier said.
Why typewriters? Indoor solitary crafts and hobbies have all been boosted by the pandemic’s strictures. But, just like the little revival typewriters enjoyed back in the aughts — initially a West Coast hipster enthusiasm — the current increase points to an affection for the mechanical amid a digital age. The “typer” has hardly replaced the ubiquitous laptop. How could it? With only a few insignificant exceptions, the machines have not been mass-produced for several decades. But a transformation was taking place: the device once considered the essential business machine was reborn as a creative tool far removed from the drudgery of work. The typewriter has acquired a touch of magic.
“My customers use it for journaling, poetry, creative writing,” Furrier said. “It’s all about writing without Internet distractions, about getting into a zone. It’s a Zen thing.”
The typewriter appeal combines the newfangled and the nostalgic. “It resonates immediately: the touch, the feel, the sound,” he said.
The young’s pronounced love of the typewriter’s clackety-clack can seem naive to older typists who take the mechanical sound for granted. But according to Daniel Marleau, who operates the website TypewriterReview.com, sound is essential.
“The sound begins to feel like music,” he wrote in an e-mail. “When you stop writing, even for a moment, you’ll feel compelled to continue, because there’s no reward in silence.”
Marleau also believes the fingers-brain connection on a typewriter inspires the imagination. “It’s a creativity survival response. Your brain senses you’re on a high wire without the safety net of editing,” he explained.
Tom Furrier’s involvement with Cambridge Typewriter dates back 41 years, nearly his entire working life. For his first 10 years — when the store was in Cambridge — Furrier was an employee. He bought the shop in 1990 and moved it to 102 Massachusetts Ave. in Arlington. But by 2000, the store was perilously close to closing. “It was dicey,” Furrier admitted. “Fixing electric typewriters was all I knew, and they were getting totally obsolete. I was sitting around with nothing to do.”
Furrier believes in trusting his instincts, and days away from giving his landlord notice, he was struck by one. “A voice told me something good was going to happen. For a year, I waited. And then, slowly, young people started to come in, asking for manual typewriters.”
Furrier had a problem though: He’d never worked on a manual, non-electric machine. “So, at night, for maybe two years, I took manuals apart and put them back together,” he said. “It became a passion. I’m still learning new things.”
When customers are in the shop, “my favorite part is seeing people have that light-bulb moment when their fingers first hit the keys. The big smile. The joy,” he said. “They instantly get the typewriter bug.”
Some are as young as 7. “That’s usually old enough to have the finger strength and dexterity to master the keyboard, and young enough to love learning by repetition,” he said. “Some of them become obsessed. I love seeing a child’s excitement.”
Like the typewriter itself, Furrier does one job and does it well. “It’s such a thrill to see the typewriter come back,” he said. “Now I can see myself doing this until I retire, which is what I’ve always wanted.”