Slow Type 

The renewed interest in typewriters isn't just a hipster trend. It's also about slowing down, developing focus, and maintaining a measure of digital detachment.

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Before buying California Typewriter and striking out on his own, Herb Permillion worked as an IBM customer engineer at UC Berkeley during the Sixties and Seventies. After twenty years of service, he left IBM, and went into business for himself in 1981, taking most of the university's typewriter and office machine service contracts with him. "IBM, they were probably not happy campers once I left and just about took the whole campus from them, but it was great," he said. "Everything [the university] had, I was able to service, and they were already familiar with my work, so it wasn't really a problem."

In 1981, UC Berkeley still had thousands of typewriters on campus that needed servicing, as well as untold numbers of copiers and fax machines. As Herb explained, service contracts were lucrative and steady, and the company's business was brisk. But during the Eighties, many departmental typewriters were phased out in favor of a general university "typing pool," in which dozens of typists would hammer out copy for professors and administrators. By the mid- to late-Nineties, there weren't enough typewriters left on campus to justify issuing service contracts for them. And ten years after that, the trend toward cheaper and more disposable office machines further eroded the need for dedicated service and repair people. These were lean times for California Typewriter. The last manual and electronic typewriter manufacturers in the country closed years ago, and given that another in India shuttered in 2011, only a few models are still being produced, largely in Brazil and China. Much of what the folks at California Typewriter know simply can't be learned at a college or trade school anymore, and it's easy to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when perfectly operable typewriters will be discarded simply for lack of knowledgeable repair people.

During our interviews, Alexander mentioned the possibility of holding typewriter repair workshops at the store. Perhaps if enough people in the Bay Area express interest in attending these, a local storehouse of practical knowledge can be distributed and preserved.

I asked whether sharing such knowledge would be bad for a business.

"That's the old way of thinking," he said, chuckling. "All these repair shops around here used to be such ... assholes, who wouldn't share anything. If you needed a part or something, your boss might tell you not to call another store or give them any business. But we changed all that, and started sharing. There aren't too many of us around anymore, so we've got to share! The more people who know these things, the better it is for all of us."

California Typewriter enjoys warm relations with Berkeley Typewriter, owned and run by Joe, Jesse, and Jeannie Banuelos at 1823 University Avenue, and Alexander even referred me to his competitor during a search for surprisingly hard-to-find white carbon paper correcting strips. Jeannie Banuelos chatted with me amiably for half an hour while she rooted around for just what I was seeking. She didn't fail, but industrial design did: She located a box of these strips, but they were so old that they turned into dust at the slightest touch.

California Typewriter has a website (CaliforniaTypewriter.com) with store history, featured machine profiles, and event listings, but the company doesn't sell any machines online. When I asked why not, Ken Alexander and Carmen Permillion answered with an easy, finishing-each-other's-sentences rapport that comes with having worked together for twenty years.

"A lot of people who buy typewriters online really don't know what they're getting!" Permillion began, heatedly. "They may look good, and they may think it's a great deal, but then they get it and it's not working, so they have to spend money to bring it in here to get it fixed ..."

"... like the platen's damaged, or the feeder roll's flat, so it's not feeding paper," Alexander added. "Or we get the ones that didn't get packaged right and the carriage is all off ..."

"We had a guy just last week who spent $300 fixing a Selectric III he'd had shipped to him," Permillion said. "We just want to sell good machines in good working order, and I prefer that people come in and actually type on a machine, then know a bit more about what they want, and what they're getting."

Looking around the shop at dozens of working typewriters ranging from 25 to 125 years in age, I marveled at how badly made most modern electronic equipment is by comparison. Even the industrial design of higher-end computers and electronic devices doesn't change the fact that they're toxic to produce, and not designed to last much longer than five years, if that, after which they'll become inoperable toxic waste. Some will then get shipped to developing countries for a reclamation and disposal process that's hazardous to human health and the environment. But even that dismal state of affairs is almost a best-case scenario. Only about a quarter of the electronic devices purchased last year will make it to reclamation. "It's such a waste, how we throw stuff away today," said Alexander.

"It's planned obsolescence with a lot of this electronic equipment," he continued, looking around at the various machines, including faxes, copiers, and printers they still repair. "Take some of these printers we work on. You pay what, $100 for them? Who's going to pay $85 to get it fixed? It's made so if the thing breaks, you throw the damn thing out and buy another."

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