‘So many offices I walk into are having the same fight,” Tom Furrier said as he hunted for a commercial parking spot in the Financial District. “They’ll tell me the typewriter broke and their boss told them to get rid of it, that they could do everything on a computer.”
The boss would be told that they do not know what they are talking about, and someone will call Furrier because he owns the only typewriter shop still left in the phone book, Cambridge Typewriter.
Most of Furrier’s business comes from writers who want a specific feel in their instrument, nearly always choosing manual typewriters. Still, nearly every morning he makes old-fashioned service calls like this to a business because the obsolescence of the electric office typewriter is not yet fully complete.
That’s because there really are still things you can’t do on a computer, especially on some legal forms and official documents. Every law office has a typewriter or two, Furrier said. School secretaries still have them. Municipal offices. Lots of places have them tucked away for typing emergencies.
On this recent trip downtown, Furrier pointed at buildings all around and rattled off names of companies that still use typewriters. He’s been making these calls since 1980, when there were pages of typewriter repairmen in the phone book, and big companies had “typing pools” filled with row after row of women firing away on IBM Selectrics, 90-word-a-minute virtuosos in a room full of smoke and industrial decibels. “Some of those women were amazing typists, and they were so particular about their Selectrics that they knew if the tiniest thing were off. They’d have me back again and again until it was perfect.”
The typing pools are long gone, but that same typewriter, the Selectric is still around. Ninety-five percent of his office calls are for either the legendary Selectric, the fast, powerful electric beast that ruled the market for two decades, firing a type ball at the page with each key stroke, and the IBM Wheelwriter, its slightly quieter and less loved low-maintenance successor, which used a spinning type wheel to get characters onto the page.
Furrier found a parking spot, checked in with security at One International Place, then took an elevator high up to Bowditch & Dewey, a law firm, where a young woman named Patrice Faulkner greeted him and walked him to a small conference room, where a Wheelwriter from the mid-’80s was waiting on the table. Faulkner’s body language indicated that she didn’t want to go anywhere near it. She told Furrier it was sent in from their Framingham office and it didn’t work. She excused herself and left Furrier to it.
He could see right away that the little hammer mechanism that taps the type wheel against the ribbon was broken, so Furrier took apart the cylinder, got a few small parts from his tool bag, and rebuilt it.
As he worked, the conference room door was open and an older woman came by, peeked her head in the conference room, and said something about how she could remember those days. Furrier smiled. He will often attract a crowd. People love to talk about typewriters. It makes them want to tell stories, he said, and to of course touch them, to remember the feel of machining words letter by letter. It does something to people. He wishes he’d collected all the things people have typed in front of him over the years. When people sit down at the keys and just type to type, they do all sorts of funny things. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, certainly, but many others go stream-of-consciousness, much of it around the theme of typing on a typewriter.
But the nostalgia bit is the other part of the business, one that is bringing more and more young people into his shop in Arlington looking to feel connected to a single-purpose writing machine. He encourages them to sit for hours and try dozens of different models until the right one chooses them, like a wizard’s wand.
This is the other side of the typewriter, the blue-collar office machines that do labels and envelopes, not poetry and prose.
For how much longer? That’s a question Furrier gets asked a lot. The typewriters aren’t going anywhere, he says. They’re built like tanks. They’ll outlive us all. It’s the things that keep them running that will go first. There are still places to get ribbons, but there are thousands of little pieces you can only get from scavenging other typewriters. And the rubber rollers that advance the paper eventually dry and crack, and he says there’s only one place that still makes those.
He gave the Wheelwriter a good cleaning and lubing, pulled an old Post-It note from behind the roller, and scrubbed away some Wite-Out. “That should give it another 15 years,” he said. As he hunted for a place inside the typewriter’s case to put a Cambridge Typewriter sticker, Faulkner told him to just put it over the repair sticker that was already there.
She tried calling them, she said, but they weren’t in business anymore.Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker