While cleaning out the garage of an elderly friend who died recently, what did I find under a pile of 1967 Playboys but a typewriter. It wasn’t just any typewriter but a vintage IBM Selectric II. I moved all 37 pounds of it to the trunk of my car.
There’s a scene in “Mad Men” where a new IBM Selectric arrives at the Sterling Cooper offices. It is 1960, and the staff gathers to gawk as it strikes letters via a wildly rotating ball—known as the “golf ball.” The Selectric marked a revolutionary change from the traditional typewriter where individual type bars swing up to strike the ribbon and page. Typewriter cultists complained that this Selectric model wasn’t introduced until 1961.
What did I need any typewriter for? Answer: Like many others Gorilla Glued to screens in service of social distancing, I hungered for things with moving parts, things you could touch, things not connected to Wi-Fi or other invisible technology. We don’t absolutely need fountain pens either, but these writing instruments uniquely combine the tactile pleasures of writing by hand with the beauty of flowing ink.
Nostalgia for a more sensual pre-internet America must partly account for the presence of old TV shows on so many streaming lineups. My favorite is “Columbo,” which first aired from 1971 to 1978. The rumpled detective pursues suspects in posh LA living rooms, with their touch-tone desk phones and bar carts already busy by mid-afternoon. Columbo’s arrogant culprits often try to hide their whereabouts by using the latest fancy tech—in their case, from the period right before computers took over.
One tries to stymie Columbo’s where-were-you question with the help of one of those old answering machines that had an internal tape player to record messages. Holding up the palm-sized tape reel, Columbo says to the weasel he’s cornering: “You see this tape? This is tricky stuff.”
My Selectric was grimy and the ribbon dried out. Happily, I found Mike Marr, a third-generation typewriter repairman, on Main Street in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Marr Office Equipment is not your Apple Store.
Typewriters are the Marr family passion. Marr’s grandfather would come home, go into the basement and fix typewriters until 10 or 11 at night. “My father would be upstairs in bed and hear the clacking,” he said.
Do any offices still use them? I asked. Yes! Lawyers do, and undertakers still type out death certificates. Government offices slip certain forms into typewriters, certainly in an old-school state like Rhode Island.
“But a lot of people just enjoy typewriters in general,” Marr said. Surprisingly, many are young students. They see the reporters in old movies banging on typewriters at places like the Chicago Tribune. “The kids want to emulate it, and they love the sound,” he said. “Their creative ability seems to flourish when they’re typing on manual typewriters with the noise and such.”
Marr’s personal favorites? “I’m a little partial to the Olympia, a German-made typewriter,” he said. But he also likes Smith Coronas and Royals. “They all have their place in my heart—a different feel, a different touch.”
Needless to say, Marr’s invoice for the work on my Selectric was typed out. You could tell because some of the numbers landed in the middle of lines. Naturally, the bill he handed me was a carbon copy.
I’m typing this on a computer. PCs and Macs liberated humankind from the correction tape once needed to cover typos. And they enabled the electronic signature.
But an envelope with a typed address is something you’d notice, wouldn’t you? And no one would have to wedge it into a printer to add the address. The typewriter lives.