In the small city of Bremerton, Washington (pop. 44,000), a ferry ride away from Seattle, the shock is not that a typewriter repair and retail store has kept its doors open. Rather, it’s that there are two in the same city — and that another just opened about an hour’s drive north, in the even tinier tourist town of Port Townsend (10,000).
The Olympic Peninsula is a hotbed of typewriter stores — probably among the densest number in the world — for no particular reason except the preservation of history and the personal interest of the folks running them. We’re not in a typewriter boom, unlike the resurgence of vinyl LPs or craft letterpress printing. However, it’s pretty wonderful to find that something that seems like a relic of the past has found a new audience and ongoing appreciation.
One of my favorite gifts as a child around age 10 was a kid-scaled red plastic typewriter that I believe my great-aunt Sizzy had given me. I had asked for it and was thrilled to get it. My family had a manual typewriter and then, in my teens, an electric one. Not a terribly expensive IBM Selectric model, but good enough. I’ve always typed as part of my job, sometimes the typing being the point.
I have missed visiting either Bremerton shops on my past trips to that city, but I was in Port Townsend last weekend — where my dad and stepmom live — and met them at Type Townsend, which was having an open house. Having just seen the very successful conclusion to the Kickstarter crowdfunding period for Shift Happens, a 1,376-page, three-volume work about keyboards that I edited and for which I’m the project manager, it felt like a good time to drop in on a typewriter shop. My last visit to one was either several decades — or never!
The owner, Shelley French, retired from corporate finance in 2019 and stumbled into a love of typewriters not long after. She ultimately went through a training course with Paul Lundy, the owner of the Bremerton Office Machine Company. (In 2014, Lundy bought the business — founded in 1947 — from its previous owner, Bob Montgomery, a man referred to universally as “Mr. Montgomery.” Mr. Montgomery passed away in 2018 at age 96, having spent 85 years of his life in the typewriter business, starting at his dad’s shop. He and Lundy are featured in Shift Happens.)
The town was bustling on a false spring day in the low 60s, although only a few people dropped in during our visit — it was a hard sell on a glorious coastal day. French offers typewriter servicing and models for sale. She had bought several typewriters as a lot just before we’d arrived. You can also drop in and tap away for $10 an hour, which applies towards a purchase. French pulled down several models for us to try. She’s asking good prices for her models, all in fine fettle and beautifully cleaned up, from about $200 to $600.
I haven’t typed much on a manual typewriter for decades, so it took me a few minutes to get my sea legs. But I used to cruise in a 100 to 120 wpm rate on electric typewriters and digital equipment. When I got warmed up, I was clattering away and got oohs and aahs from French, a friend of hers and fellow typewriter aficionado on hand, and my parents. For me, I was too aware of how many errors I was making!
My dad reminisced to us all at one point how he’d gone from being a hunt-and-peck typist to a touch typist. I asked him to write up this memory:
I am a native of Poughkeepsie, New York, where my family spent decades in the retail furniture business. In my youngish teen years in the early 1950s, I would hang around the store office after school and bang out something or other on the typewriter, using a slow one-finger method. Until one day Phil Maguire, the Advertising Manager of the Poughkeepsie Journal (then known as the Poughkeepsie New Yorker), stopped by to pick up the week’s ad materials. He saw me pecking away at the typewriter and told me something I still remember 70 years later. Words to the effect that I should stop wasting my time and learn how to really type. A few months later I signed up for typing class in high school, and actually became fairly proficient. And who knew, as I sit here and type this story and think back, that almost everyone in the universe would eventually need that skill.
My response to my dad was, “That’s nearly word-for-word the advice you gave me when I was 11 or 12: ‘You should learn to touch type because it will be useful to you in the future.’” He didn’t remember telling me, but clearly the hand of Phil Maguire was reaching out from the past. Learning to touch type at 12ish — self taught — led to my becoming the typesetter of the high school newspaper, into graphic design (also following my dad, who sold display ads at one point for a local weekly paper in Eugene, Oregon), and ultimately into journalism and whatever it is I do these days. My 18-year-old also remembers me telling him that when he was about 11.
(Side note: My dad’s boss at the newspaper, the Willamette Valley Observer, was Ken Doctor, its founder and publisher. Ken went on to work in the Knight-Ridder chain and then become a well-regarded expert on the future of media. I called Ken to interview him for an article several years ago, mentioned the connection my dad, and then Ken interviewed me for Newsonomics, a book about trends in news in which he cited my Wi-Fi Networking News blog.)
I wish Shelly French and her business success! Port Townsend is normally overrun with people in the summer, and suffered terribly during the first two pandemic summers; I think last year was a bit better, and 2023 should see visitor numbers roaring back.
One of the key things that lets us preserve the machinery of the past are people who know how to run and repair it. You could probably take a drive across the midwest, stopping in here and there in medium-sized towns, and pick up a million pounds of old hot-metal typecasting equipment and letterpress printing equipments. Most of it would be rusted out or at least require a lot of elbow or actual grease to get running. If a part were missing or broken, like a motor’s belt or a metal casting frame, you might be out of luck. A few dozen people in the United States can repair letterpress gear and most are getting well on in years.
Manual and electric typewriters fall into a different category. While complicated machines in their own right, they aren’t Linotypes. Manual typewriters in particular were overengineered and heavily tested before they left a factory in nearly every case. They were designed to withstand tens of millions of keystrokes, if not billions, and traveling and portable models were put together with the notion they could get knocked about on airplanes, trains, buses, and cars, and suffer sand, dirt, and worse. They were simple to maintain.
Repairing is another matter. They could have hundreds of parts, many of them entirely unique, such as typebars. Anyone who has tried to fix a bike derailleur without proper training — here, I raise my hand — will know that adjusting machinery with fine calibration and small tolerances can result in rendering a working device unusable.
French learning an old skill will keep old equipment fresh, and she becomes a living link in exposing and training others.
I’ll note in closing one funny bit of old and new. Port Townsend is full of historic buildings put to new uses, French’s Type Townsend located in such a space. I was admiring the brick wall on one side from a distance, thinking how lovely it was to see that detail. But when I got closer — it was skeuomorphic, a printed brick pattern. The typewriters are real; the brick is not!