February 3, 2013

Typewriters making a return

It’s an Apple/HP world out there, and yet ... among a small but growing number of key players, names like Olivetti and Underwood are PC once again. Word.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Back in November, my 22-year-old friend Patrick Cochran mentioned in passing that he wanted an old typewriter for Christmas.

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The view at LFK, a tapas bar where typewriters are respected and loved, at State and Pine streets in Portland.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The well-worn keys of a Royal typewriter in the LFK collection.

Additional Photos Below

As is the case with most people his age, this kid -- as a 50-year-old, I can call him a kid -- had never used a typewriter before. He's an aspiring journalist, and his career as a college scribe has consisted of writing on a laptop. Never once had he experienced the clumsy joy of a manual typewriter, with its stiff keys, snarled ribbons and clackety-clack cadence.

Until Christmas morning.

Under the tree sat a dead-weight circa 1940 Woodstock typewriter. It was big, black and beautiful.

At first, he just looked at it, unsure what to do with it, or how. With visions of Kerouac dancing in his head, my young friend hoisted it up with both hands tucked under its sides and plunked it on the table.

The way he considered it was not unlike a puppy learning how to descend a flight of stairs the first time: Timidly. He looked it over, leaning in to get close to the keys and trying to figure out exactly how to proceed.

I wondered if he was looking for the power button or charging port. Then I realized he probably had never loaded a piece of paper in the roller, never swung a carriage return bar, never released the tension on the carriage to align the paper.

My friend, who has since mastered the bulky old albatross and now keeps the neighbors awake with his midnight writing, is part of a growing renaissance that is returning the manual typewriter to royal stature. Just as vinyl records are finding fans among those who grew up in the digital age, the manual typewriter is finding a small but devout niche among subculture revivalists.

Patrick Costigan of Cosco Technologies in Winthrop has experienced the revival first-hand. He specializes in business machine sales and service. Increasingly, he is being asked to fix and refurbish manual typewriters.

"I get them from all over," he told me after I dropped off my old typewriter for service before giving it as a Christmas present.

For my young friend, the whole thing was a mystery, the stuff of legends and lore. His favorite writers created their best work on these things, and he was in awe.

He appeared nervous before he began his virginal typewriter experience. Slowly and with obvious uncertainty, he began pecking, one key at a time. The shift bar startled him -- the whole carriage moved when he chose a capital letter.

He noted the lack of "1." I explained that he had to use a capital "I" for the number one, and warned that he would soon discover other "missing" keys. 


The typewriter came to me as a gift many years ago. A journalist friend who was moving on from my former newspaper opted not to lug it back across the country, and offered it to me as a token of our friendship. I used it as a display piece in my home office for a good 20 years. It seemed fitting to pass it along to another journalist, to keep the chain going.

I never used it for writing. Instead, I wore out a series of word processors, desktops and laptops. Meanwhile, the old typewriter stood by, collecting dust.

Costigan told me it was in excellent shape. He documented its genealogy to at least 1940, and based on the serial number, he thinks it might date to 1938 or earlier. After Costigan replaced the ribbon, oiled the moving parts and attended to a few other details, the machine sang.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Hermes 3000

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Hermes Ambassador

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Wide-carriage Royal

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Royal portable

Gordon Chibroski

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The LFK bar, which is shaped to resemble a typewriter and is embedded with keys specially made to look like old typewriter keys (and which spell out the words of an Emily Dickinson poem).


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