The Vanishing Craft of the Typewriter Repairman Some people still write with fountain pens. Some still love their old manual and electric typewriters. But typewriter repairmen are a vanishing breed. Up on the eighth floor of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, Paul Schweitzer has been fixing and cleaning typewriters for 40 years.
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The Vanishing Craft of the Typewriter Repairman

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The Vanishing Craft of the Typewriter Repairman

The Vanishing Craft of the Typewriter Repairman

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When the fan in your computer dies, and you dial up the services of a call center in Mumbai, while you wait on hold listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, do you ever whimsically think back to the good old days of pounding the keyboard of a clunky, two ton, manual typewriter?

You know, I kind of do.

The classic typewriter inspires fond memories of late night term paper writing and literary legends (unintelligible) that many an inspired line has been tapped out on a beloved antique Remington or Underwood or Olympia. Or even an IBM Selectric.

If you still have one of those old manual machines, or even an electric typewriter, and it breaks, what are you going to do? Call Mumbai? Not if you're in New York City.

NPR's Margot Adler reports on life for a typewriter repairmen in the digital age.

MARGO ADLER reporting:

Heather Ferrari(ph), an Administrative Assistant at an environmental consulting firm, has wandered up to the eighth floor of the Flatiron building in Manhattan in search of a power cord for a very specific machine.

Ms. HEATHER FARARRI: Olivetti 901D.

ADLER: It's an electronic?

Ms. FERARRI: Yes, it is.

ADLER: And why do you like it more than a computer?

Ms. FERARRI: I like the noise it makes. It's just, it's soothing. I don't know the thumping.

ADLER: It may seem strange to start the story with a power cord but both manual and electric typewriters are being used by many people and by companies. There are still forms and labels for which an old typewriter is the only way to go. But the love of these machines, particularly the love of classic manual ones, goes well beyond the practical. The Gramercy Typewriter Company in Manhattan is only about 280 square feet. There's hardly room to move. There are shelves from floor to ceiling stuffed with the innards of old manual and electric typewriters. Spools of typewriter ribbons lie on tables next to hammers, screwdrivers and assorted cleaning fluids. Old typewriter cases looking like small suitcases from the 1940s line the floor. And there are boxes of more recent merchandise, laser printers that allow the business to survive.

Paul Schweitzer has run the Gramercy Typewriter Company for 40 years. His father started it during the Depression.

Mr. PAUL SCHWEITZER (Gramercy Typewriter Co. Owner): It's getting to be that I'm one of the last of the breed. If you had looked in the Yellow Pages 10 years ago, you would've seen five to six pages filled with typewriter repair companies right here in New York City.

ADLER: There is no computer in the office. Records are kept on four by six index cards. Most of the time Schweitzer and his assistants are out and about repairing typewriters and printers in offices and homes.

A woman calls up wanting a ribbon for a portable Hermes Rocket.

Mr. SCHWEITZER: Hello Gramercy. Yes we do. Yes. Got one right on my desk in front of me. Just that they're all black ribbons. They're not red and black. Six dollars.

ADLER: Schweitzer goes over to an old German typewriter from the 1930s, a Rhinemetal.

Mr. SCHWEITZER: The keys were sticky and as you can see it's really shiny and clean in here. When I first got the machine, it was all gummed up.

ADLER: I notice a lot of typewriter ribbons around.


ADLER: Trying to fit it or trying to figure out...

Mr. SCHWEITZER: Fit the proper ribbon into this machine.

ADLER: Schweitzer's assistant, Lester Williams, says on his house calls, he encounters the incredible attachment people have to their typewriters.

Mr. LESTER WILLIAMS (Gramercy Typewriter Employee): They hear the typing on the machine, the smell of their ink rolling back and forth, and they get into a thought pattern, whereas opposed to the computer's an inanimated object that just comes up and looks at you.

Professor RICHARD POLT (Xavier University): I think it's a direct connection to the physical world you have when you're writing on a typewriter. You're immediately creating something concrete, actual. You're digging into the keys. The metal is smacking against the paper. And there it is.

ADLER: Richard Polt is a philosophy professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He collects typewriters, has about 140 of them. Has a typewriter website and puts out a quarterly magazine for typewriter lovers called Etcetera. The problem with the computer, he says, is partly distraction.

Professor POLT: You can't check your email on a typewriter. You can't surf the web and go to eBay and try to buy more typewriters, which is what I do. And another effect that the typewriter has that some people like in certain situations is it makes you more deliberate, because it's harder to change the words afterwards, of course. So you have to think in advance about what you're going to put on the typewriter and you have to be more decisive.

ADLER: On the website, an online typewriter store, there's a list of some 40 writers living and dead and their favorite typewriters. Thomas Pynchon likes the Olivetti Portable, Ernest Hemingway preferred the Corona No. 3 and 4. And Ayn Rand, the Remington Rand.

The site also includes these words by Australian writer Edward Dyson, who died in 1931.

I have a Trim typewriter now. They tell me none is better. It makes a pleasing, rhythmic row. And neat is every letter.

And that's Professor Richard Polt's Remington No. 2 from 1927. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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