STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Okay. Long before cell phones and text messages, typing was done with all 10 fingers — not just two thumbs. Those were the days of typewriters - maybe you've heard of them, clackety machines of communication - and it turns out those days are not entirely gone. In Los Altos, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg found a shop where business is still clacking.
(Sounbite of phone ringing)
Mr. JOHN SANSONE (Business owner, Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines): Los Altos Business Machines.
STAMBERG: The full name of John Sansone's shop on State Street is Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines. He shortens it to sound more contemporary. Sansone fixes fax machines, printers, but typewriters still need his attention.
Mr. SANSONE: Okay, the L-link is broken, okay.
STAMBERG: Like his father before him, John Sansone cleans and repairs typewriters.
Mr. SANSONE: Now you can't get ribbons for those anymore.
STAMBERG: But it's getting harder and harder.
Mr. SANSONE: There's very few things you can even order or send out anymore for these old machines.
STAMBERG: You can still find typewriters in offices, Sansone says, used for addressing envelopes and mailing labels, but you have to hunt and peck to find them.
Mr. SANSONE: You know, they used to be at everybody's desk, but now they're next to the microwave, or they're in the copy room, they're in a little corner.
STAMBERG: Given these givens, it is not surprising that one of his customers arrives on a walker, her white hair neatly permed. A friend carries the lady's typewriter to John Sansone.
Mr. SANSONE: So what's the problem with it?
Ms. ESTHER JOHNSON: Everything.
STAMBERG: When Esther Johnson's son got a computer, she bought his electric typewriter.
Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, I've always liked the typewriter, always.
STAMBERG: Been typing a long time?
Ms. JOHNSON: Since I was 14 years old.
STAMBERG: How old are you?
Ms. JOHNSON: I'm 103.
STAMBERG: And she's still at it, although sometimes it's pesky.
(Soundbite of typewriter)
STAMBERG: Sansone can't find anything wrong. He puts in some new correction tape and sends Mrs. Johnson on her way, no charge.
Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you, thank you.
Mr. SANSONE: Oh, sure.
STAMBERG: What is surprising is the number of younger people who find their way to Sansone's shop, not just for cleaning and repairs, but to buy vintage typewriters - some made as long ago as the early 1900s. John says people rarely get rid of typewriters. They gather dust in a grandparents' basement or garage, and end up at Sansone's where he fixes, refurbishes, and sells them.
Mr. SANSONE: I sell little, old manual typewriters, preferably cute and interesting looking. Seriously - it's more important than how they function.
STAMBERG: People look at them as works of art.
Mr. SANSONE: Yeah, I suppose so. I hear mostly cute.
STAMBERG: They sound cute too in this age of noiseless computers. Each typewriter clacks differently.
(Soundbite of typewriter clacking)
STAMBERG: A small portable Corona that reporters liked in the 1920s. An Oliver Number 9 - its keys look like bellows. There's a market for these clacks and rings and bells. While most businesses had dreary holiday season, John Sansone sold two typewriters a week. Now sales are slower, but customers do keep showing up.
And who's coming?
Mr. SANSONE: The bulk of it is high school, college, and they're all writers.
Ms. ISH ARORA: For my sixteenth birthday my father bought me a red Remington typewriter because I love to write.
STAMBERG: Ish Arora, a high school sophomore, does all her school work on a laptop, but writes poems on the red Remington. Her 1930 typewriter sits on a plain wooden desk in a client room.
Ms. ARORA: It's nice to write in silence, and the only thing I hear is the sound of the keys.
STAMBERG: She loves her typewriter so much that she has named it Pasha, for a character in one of her favorite books, "Doctor Zhivago."
Ms. ARORA: So I feel like when I step into this room and I start to type on Pasha, it's kind of escaping my everyday life, and I can just sit down and immerse myself in the words.
(Soundbite of typewriter clacking)
STAMBERG: Ish Arora likes inspecting dust jacket photographs of authors from years back sitting at their typewriters. One such writer, Wallace Stegner -born in February a hundred years ago - was a customer of John Sansone's.
Mr. SANSONE: He had an Olympia manual. Yeah, he would bring it in every couple of years for cleaner or probably some kind of repair, maybe just a ribbon. Yeah, no, he was just pretty much another customer.
STAMBERG: Just another customer?
Mr. SANSONE: Yeah.
STAMBERG: Wallace Stegner got the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for "Angle of Repose," the National Book Award in 1977 for "The Spectator Bird." Stegner wrote more than 30 books on his typewriter. By phone, his son Page said his father never used electric typewriters, only manuals with their harder to press keys.
Mr. PAGE STEGNER: Which he typed with two fingers on.
STAMBERG: Oh, no kidding? Hunt and peck?
Mr. STEGNER: Hunt and peck, at a very rapid rate, I might add. I mean he was missing a finger on his left hand, so he never learned to type the rest of us type.
STAMBERG: But he went pretty fast?
Mr. STEGNER: He went very fast, yeah.
STAMBERG: Wallace Stegner felt electric typewriters and computers went too fast. He needed the mulling time of a manual, the slower ritual of rolling in the paper, poising fingers over the keys.
(Soundbite of typewriter clanking)
Mr. ALOK ARORA (IT Professional): Oh that is gorgeous.
SANSONE: This is an old royal.
STAMBERG: Alok Arora, Ish's father, has come to Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines with the thought of buying a typewriter for himself. Mr. Arora is an IT guy. He works for a NetApp, the data storage company.
Mr. ARORA: So it's a paradox, being in the forefront of technology, and here I am working with this typewriter which was made about 90 years ago.
STAMBERG: It may be a paradox, but a number of computer folks are buying themselves typewriters. Sure, they miss the spell-check and save keys, but they like seeing how machines work. They like the sounds. They even like X-ing out words instead of hitting a delete key. And, Alok Arora says, there's something else.
Mr. ARORA: It shows you the journey, how you arrived. That is where we miss with the latest technology — you miss the process. But to some people like me, the journey is more important than the destination.
STAMBERG: I like it too. Once upon a time, this reporter could type 99 words a minute.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Oh, I think I've lost my greatest skill.
(Soundbite of typewriter clanking)
(Soundbite of song "The Typewriter")
INSKEEP: Now you heard Susan Stamberg typing along to Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter." That's something that the comedian Jerry Lewis also did. And you can hear him and find a gallery of vintage typewriters at npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
(Soundbite of music)