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Archive for Sunday, April 17, 2005

Typewriter repairmen still click with customers

Computer boom put damper on business, but need remains

April 17, 2005

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— Even in the constantly evolving age of computers, Bill Mark still gets the call once or twice a month -- a typewriter is broken and in need of a house call.

"You get into older people, they don't want to mess with computers," he said of his house-call clients. "They are used to the typewriters."

And in Topeka, that means they need Mark. His shop -- Western Typewriter, established in 1917 -- is the only one left of the eight or so that once repaired typewriters in the capital city. His only competition is a mostly retired repairman, whose health is failing, and another shop that mainly works on computers and printers.

"A lot of people that used to be into typewriters aren't into it anymore," he said. "Most of them were older guys that aren't around."

Mark is a rarity, one of the few still servicing the once ubiquitous machines that have become tools used only by devotees who never made the leap to computers and in other places, like law offices and banks, where they're useful for preparing forms. And even though he also gets some business from collectors, Mark must still work another full-time job to pay the bills.

"It's become more of a hobby for me than anything else," said Mark, 57. "I mean, I couldn't make a living here just doing this here all the time."

Stubborn group

The 1980s were a booming decade for the shops that sold and serviced typewriters, thanks to the arrival of the new generation of electronic typewriters that led many people to replace their older machines. But as computers became cheaper and easier to use, fewer people bought typewriters.

In the midst of the change, some repair shops closed. But a stubborn group stuck with the job of repairing them.

Bill Mark is framed in the window of his Topeka shop as he repairs
a typewriter Tuesday. Mark's fascination with typewriters dates to
his childhood, when he sometimes accompanied his father to the
family business to tinker with old machines from the 1930s.

Bill Mark is framed in the window of his Topeka shop as he repairs a typewriter Tuesday. Mark's fascination with typewriters dates to his childhood, when he sometimes accompanied his father to the family business to tinker with old machines from the 1930s.

In Danbury, Conn., Benny DeFazio still fixes typewriters from his home using the parts salvaged from the now closed shop where he started working when he was 16. Some ask him to repair typewriters their fathers used, others need a fix for the electronic typewriters still used to fill out forms at the office.

But even with his supply of parts, it's become hard to find the right ones.

"It's a dying field," the 73-year-old said. "It's a shame, but what are you going to do? People have to get along and do things faster today."

In California, fewer people each year bring in typewriters that need repairs to Berkley Typewriter and Clark Business Machines. While they once accounted for almost all of the shop's business, typewriters now make up only about a quarter of repairs.

Part-owner Tom Wiard said typewriters are a niche that attract the young, who see them as a retro curiosity, and the old, who struggle to make the transition to computers or remain emotionally attached to their machines.

Bill Mark examines a 50-year-old typewriter Tuesday in his Topeka
shop.

Bill Mark examines a 50-year-old typewriter Tuesday in his Topeka shop.

"Some come and drag in their old typewriter and say, 'My computer is down. Can you fix this?"' he said.

Second job

For Mark, his fascination with typewriters dates to his childhood, when he sometimes accompanied his father to the family business to tinker with old machines from the 1930s. By the time he went to work for his father, buying the shop from him in 1987, desktop computers were becoming increasingly popular.

Initially, the newfangled machines didn't cause him any pause. Right after taking over Western Typewriter, Mark sold 115 of one model in three months, winning a trip to Germany.

"It really didn't bother me," he said, "because I didn't think computers would affect typewriters that much."

He was wrong. His father made his living at the shop, but Mark works 40 to 45 hours a week at a photo lab on top of the 40 hours a week he spends at Western Typewriter. His wife does the books and fills in when he leaves for his second job.

'Hard to beat'

The basement at Western Typewriter is filled with aging machines -- some pulled from his father's garage. One wall of shelving features a charming array of typewriters from the earlier half of the last century, which he restores and sells. The older machines, which can take a full day to repair, don't fetch much more than $125.

On display upstairs are two of his favorite machines, an 1897 model with a wooden base and a 1910 Corona foldover portable typewriter -- the same type that company clerks carried during World War I.

Though he said he know he won't become rich fixing the old machines, he figures there's enough need for his services to keep him busy until he retires. Death and birth certificates, he notes, are still typed.

"For filling out forms, they are hard to beat," he said. "Same with envelopes."

Mark thinks his father, who died five years ago, was proud that he kept the shop going. But his mother worries.

"'We left all of our problems to you.' That's what she says."

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