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Why (and how) you should buy a typewriter

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Handout and Handout | The Daily Wildcat Kasbah Mod's painstakingly restored vintage typewriters. $199-$1,200. (MCT)

You won’t know what to write your first time typing on a typewriter, becase you won’t know what words are worth being struck so permanently onto the surface of the paper. You’ll type pithy greetings, and strings of random characters, as you watch the mechanisms swing and shuttle along. You’ll listen to the click and clatter of the machine that seems alive under your fingertips, then, after the initial coy flirtations, you’ll get serious. You’ll find the words coming to you, the right words, the words that are meant to be there. You’ll feel like Ernest Hemingway, like Hunter S. Thompson, and The Most Interesting Man in the World.

Typewriters are making a comeback in this all-digital age. While the continued demand for newly-manufactured typewriters is itself surprising — the BBC reports that in 2007 Brother Industries sold 12,000 electronic typewriters in the UK alone, and according to the New York Post the New York City government spent almost $1 million on typewriters in 2008 — the secondhand market is where the magic is happening. Bill Wahl, proprietor of the Mesa Typewriter Exchange, says that older customers have always come to his shop for typewriter purchases or repair, but in the last five years or so he has seen an influx of young clientele that continues to this day. Wahl said he isn’t sure exactly what the appeal is for them, although he added that many interested customers are writers or creative-types who want to try something different.

As English journalist and novelist Will Self explains, “I think the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head.” Typewriters have a vocal and growing fanbase, and why not? They can be used to cure writer’s block, type unique and personal letters, or simply as decorative conversation pieces. The versatility and ease of corrections when typing on a computer is certainly convenient and helpful, but there is something intangibly satisfying and inspiring about using a typewriter that a computer keyboard fails to replicate.

As the fascinating Virtual Antique Typewriter Museum explains, typewriter-like machines were first patented in the early 1800s, with an original purpose of aiding the blind in being able to write. It wasn’t until 1870, however, that a mass-produced model was developed: the Hansen Writing Ball, which looked like a cross between a keyboard and a pincushion. In the early 20th century manual typewriters as we know them emerged and became standard, with the Underwood No. 5 model establishing itself as the first modern typewriter in 1900.

The next few decades refined the manual typewriter with convenient features like caps lock and correction tape, until IBM introduced viable electric typewriters with their Selectric model in 1961. From there it was a slippery slope to the adoption of electronic typewriters, which were basically computers that only functioned as word processors, and finally the fall from grace of typewriters in favor of personal computers. Despite this, the allure of manual typewriters endured and has blossomed again for a new generation of people looking for the elusive something that will delight and inspire them.

For those looking to get in on this trend of retro typistry, there are a few different ways to acquire your very own machine. The regional Mecca of typewriters is the aforementioned Mesa Typewriter Exchange in the Phoenix metro area, where typewriters can be bought, sold, repaired and played with. Locally, Copper Country Antiques on Speedway and Rosemont and the American Antique Mall on Grant and Country Club both generally have a handful of vintage or antique typewriters, with early 1900s Underwood models being ubiquitous. They pop up occasionally at other, smaller antique shops, as well as Goodwill. The trick when shopping at these stores, however, is to check regularly; their inventories change all the time, and just because it’s not there one week doesn’t mean they won’t ever have it. The internet is a wonderful resource for finding typewriters and associated supplies as well, of course, although electronic typewriters are the most plentiful on the web.

Wahl said that a lot of his younger customers don’t realize the importance of finding the right typewriter to fit their needs. Typewriters vary widely in terms of quality, typeface and feel, Wahl explains, so eager young buyers often jump at the first machine they see, only to find one later that they like better.

“Don’t be in a rush,” he said. “Try as many as you can so you can find one you’re comfortable with.” Wahl also encouraged visitors to trial-run the typewriters he has on display so that they can get a better idea of what they want in a typewriter.

Once you acquire your own machine, chances are it will need some kind of maintenance done before it operates like it should. If you want to become intimately acquainted with your new machine, look for tutorials on the internet on how to disassemble and service it. If you’d rather play it safe and not risk breaking anything, Mesa Typewriter Exchange is unfortunately the closest typewriter repair shop to the Tucson area. It will be worth the trip, however, when you see the rows and rows of stately antique machines and shiny retro models. You’ll also want to stock up on ribbons and/or correction tape while you’re there.

For aspiring writers, nostalgic correspondents and collectors of vintage artifacts, having a typewriter is almost certainly a sound choice and a rewarding experience. It does take some getting used to when switching from a computer, and not everyone will make it through the transition, but those who do will find themselves making excuses to use the typewriter as often as possible. Reminder notes, grocery lists, letters to friends and family, resumes, stories and poems will all roll steadily out of your new typewriter until you wonder how you ever lived without one. Every keystroke on a typewriter is a permanent, physical and gratifying act, and in this era of immaterial digital documents, that is something to be appreciated.


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