Typewriters survive in corners of digital era

2013-08-03T00:00:00Z Typewriters survive in corners of digital eraBy Chris Hubbuch | chubbuch@lacrossetribune.com La Crosse Tribune

The La Crosse Public Library last month quietly retired its last remaining typewriter.

There was only one patron requiring its services, and supplies were increasingly difficult to find. The patron has now learned to use a computer.

The machine — an IBM Wheelwriter 10 made in the late 1980s — sits on a shelf in the basement, where handwritten notes on the original owner’s manual warn potential buyers of its quirks. Paper doesn’t advance properly. The correction tape sticks. It’s gummed up with Liquid Paper. Supplies are hard to find.

“It was a sad, long inelegant death,” said Rochelle Hartman, information services manager for the library.

Invented in 1867 by a Milwaukee newspaperman and machinist, the modern typewriter was the writing instrument of choice for the better part of a century, until it was replaced — like so many technologies — by the computer.

A generation of students have grown up without ever making a carriage return or gumming up the ribbon with correction fluid. It’s been at least three decades since a Tribune reporter banged out copy on a typewriter.

But this legacy technology survives in the corners of a digital era.

Banks, law offices, day cares and Luddites alike cling to their vestigial machines for reasons nostalgic and pragmatic.

“We use them at least every

few days,” said Jessica Hall, office manager at the Moen Sheehan Meyer law firm. “There are still forms we can’t fill in on the computer.”

Kristie Kamm inherited an IBM Wheelwriter 10 years ago when she came to Kerndt Brothers Savings Bank in Lansing, Iowa.

“It was here when I came in,” she said. “I’ve been very protective of it. … I’ve had coworkers who wanted to take my typewriter. Over my dead body.”

The vice president and personal banker said she uses it when she needs to address an envelope or label and doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of putting it in the printer she shares with half a dozen coworkers.

“I can’t say I would ever type a letter on it,” said Kamm, 44. “It’s a convenience for the little things.”

When her typewriter breaks, she takes it to Dennis Johnson.

Johnson, one of the owners of Precision Office Machines, works from a quiet shop jammed with office machines on the mezzanine level of the old JC Penney building on Fifth Avenue. He fixes printers; his partner does cash registers. A sign outside the frosted glass door instructs customers to leave their broken machines on the shelf with a name and number.

Johnson got his start 30 years ago fixing copiers, which still account for the bulk of his business.

But in the 10 percent of the time he’s not selling or repairing photocopiers, faxes and printers, Johnson is unjamming keys and keeping carriers returning properly for a handful of area customers who depend on him.

“Believe it or not, I can’t get away from them,” he said. “People are in a real bind if I don’t do anything. ... I kind of feel a responsibility to it.”

An aging Smith-Corona sits open on his workbench. It’s owner, Johnson said, is “dead in the water” without it.

The correction tape is not lifting, and Johnson fears the problem might be a hard-to-find part.

Sure, you can still buy a new typewriter. Office Depot’s website offers a Brother SX-4000 with free delivery for just $134.99, and Swintec makes a line of transparent-cased typewriters marketed to prison inmates.

But Johnson notes that many of the machines still in service cost hundreds of dollars or more when purchased in the 1980s or 1990s, making them assets worth preserving.

He still refurbishes good machines when he can find them. A nice 1970s-era IBM Selectric will fetch about $150.

“I just sold three of them used last week,” he said. “There’s still a lot of people who like these.”

People like Dr. Jim Kadlec, who in his 44 years as a dentist never used a computer.

“Old school — paper and pencil,” he said. “Everything went on paper and was in the file.”

Since retiring in 2008, he’s started using a computer, with the help of his grandchildren. But the 72-year-old dentist keeps his Smith-Corona around for tax forms, checks and the occasional letter.

“I’m gradually weaning toward the computer,” Kadlec said. “It takes me a little bit to get used to typing. ... It’s so feather light. You barely breathe on it and it’s typing for you.”

For those who yearn to type but lack a machine of their own, Western Technical College still has a typewriter available for public use.

But it doesn’t get much action.

Since 2007, director of library services Ron Edwards said he’s seen it in use only four or five times.

“I think most of the time when I’ve seen somebody there it’s been the same person,” Edwards said. “Usually I can hear it. It sticks out because it’s unusual these days.“

The public library began phasing out typewriters when it adopted a computerized catalog system in 1992, a change that evokes more nostalgia among patrons than staff.

Myrna Paulson, the volunteer manager, recalls the days when issuing a library card required her to type up five separate 3-by-5 cards.

Most struggle to remember the last time they used a typewriter.

“It was for a form,” Paulson said. “At least three years ago.”

Still, they kept one out for patrons.

“A couple of years ago we were seeing people with job applications,” said Rochelle Hartman, information services manager for the library. “It was just getting harder to replace things.”

Over the past year, Hartman said, there was just one patron using it.

“We said, ‘you know what? We’d like to show you the computer.’”

And he made the transition.

For others, the typewriter is an instrument of nostalgia.

“My fiancée and I love old vintage style things,” said Tanner Costello, who found an old Royal typewriter that he plans to let guests use to sign their names at his wedding today.

Costello, 21, had never used a typewriter before. He said pushing down on the manual keys was a strange — but cool — experience.

“There’s so much history behind all those things,” Costello said. “People are always looking toward the future, but it’s fun to take a moment and remember our past.”

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(1) Comments

  1. Lorraine
    Report Abuse
    Lorraine - August 03, 2013 4:10 pm
    I did not know this place exists, but I am glad to read about it!

    Typewriters are great for typing envelopes.

    I teach keyboarding skills to my homeschoolers on one.

    I have great memories of purchasing my first electric typewriter when I was a single professional in North Dakota.
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