Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Fave Thing #6

There's a young guy who works at the local cafe. He pours coffee, makes sandwiches and does the dishes. Every once in a while I freak him out with stories about "the old days". Last Saturday I really put the zap on him.

"Back in the 80s," I said, "I used to work in a typewriter store."

"Oh, wow," he said. "Ooo-o-o ... maaaan!" He followed this up with a run of laughter that used to be associated with Beavis & Butt-Head (remember them?).

It's true: a store devoted to typewriters was still a viable business a mere 20 years ago. In fact the billboard on the pre-Depression-era building advertised "TYPEWRITERS & Office Equipment", but the majority of the store's floor space was given over to typewriters and as a salesman typewriters were my exclusive domain. I did quite well by them, too.

A girl about to enter college would walk through our front door with her father in tow, the man's arms straining at the sockets from the hunk of iron he was carrying. We'd give him $15, relieve him of the burden and schlep it to our repair shop, then sell him something new for ten times the amount of his trade-in.

Our trade-in policy wasn't, strictly speaking, a ruse: we did sell reconditioned typewriters for $40. There was a tiny room in the back where an old guy hunched over and painstakingly repaired these old clunkers. He could be difficult to talk to, but he did good work.

Sales of new typewriters fluctuated with the seasons, but I averaged two or three used sales a week. We could have sold ten times that weekly amount for the better part of a year before we made so much as a dint in our stock of old typewriters. The building was lousy with them.

One weekend I was told to keep my dress clothes at home and report to work in my grubbies. I spent that entire day lugging old typewriters from the basement to the third floor of the building, one typewriter at a time. After just one hour of that I thought I was going to die, but things looked worse for my partner: he was nearly twice my age, and couldn't manage more than a few runs before he had to light another cigarette. That was the only time I saw the third floor of that ancient building. Rooms that had once been apartments were now filled — to the ceiling — with typewriters. The only reason we were going to the third floor was because we couldn't possibly squeeze another typewriter into the second. The place reeked of 3-in-1 oil.

It was a musty old building with plenty of musty old charm, set among an entire block of such buildings. To the one side of us was a cavernous pool hall. To the other was an ancient drugstore with a lunch counter. If you got to the drugstore before noon, you could order a "toasted" cinnamon roll — "toasted" in scare quotes because the old gal in the powder blue uniform would split the roll, smear a quarter-cup of butter on each side, then fry those babies on the griddle for a minute before she wrapped 'em in tin-foil and presented them to you in a greasy paper bag. I'm not averse to rich foods, but I generally took a pass on the "toasted" cinnamon roll.

The shop was a couple of blocks away from the university. One of my university buddies would meet me for coffee; when we were done, he'd clap me on the back and say, "Well, Rome wasn't built in a day!" O-ho-ho: this was the frequently voiced sentiment of the dotty old matron in Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge, whose cringing son sold typewriters and silently aspired (seethed, really) to be a novelist. Among the many crucial differences between me and the son was my overall satisfaction with my job.

In fact, if anyone was in desperate straits in that outfit, it was the typewriter industry. The computer was breathing down the industry's neck, and they were coming up with absurd computer-typewriter hybrids, hoping to stave off the inevitable. If you wanted to, it was possible to spend over a grand on a deluxe office model, but not one of those typewriters was good for more than five years, tops.

In my later incarnation as a long-haired, still-scrawny boho, I thought an excellent "author's photo" would be a B&W shot of me in one of the upper typewriter crypts. I took my wife to the store (now selling computers and software), introduced her to the staff, then asked if such a photo-session might be possible. "They're all gone!" I was told. "The fire safety inspector gave us one week to get rid of them, so we got the biggest dumpster available and chucked them from the windows!"

My, but the visions that inspires. I expect 99% of the new models I sold (hollow plastic shells, one and all) have joined their company, compressed deep within some enormous landfill.

I'm still irrationally fond of typewriters, though typically of a vintage older than the ones I sold. Here's a doorstop in our house (the keys were being hammered by a visiting kid as I was typing this).

And this beaut rests in our basement.

It works, albeit hesitantly. It's just waiting for a little tender cleaning and a new ribbon. This summer, perhaps?


DarkoV said...

Oh this post is most excellent! Brings back the days in college when move-in day included hauling an Olympia electric typewriter up 4 flights of stairs in a hell-hole of an apartment in Montreal. That typewriter was the most expensive thing in that apartment, and I'm including stereos, stoves and bathtubs in the equation. That lovely hum, the jittery movement of the table it sat on when it was turned on, ahhhh.

It was many years later that the strain of the lettery weight re-visited me. I was the beta-guy for our company's foray into portable computing. So, I donkeyed a 25 lb. "portable" Compaq (remember those early portables? The ones with the screens stolen from WW II German submarines?) around.

It's a shame they were all chucked. Your pictures of multi-keyed doorstops showed me there were other lifechoices to be made for the old clunkers.

Yahmdallah said...

Man, the thought of all those typewriters getting dumped just makes me hang my head.

I have two WORKING portables in the basement. Forgot the brand name, but they're awesome.

Cowtown Pattie said...

I have my mom's portable one from college. My first typing class in junior high was on an old manual.

When I completed that semester, I could crush a small boulder with my hands and never flinch..

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - the jittery table is indeed a lovely memory, very much in sync with my own caffeine-induced quivering. And those "portable" Compaqs - oy, vey! Given the light weight of today's laptops and iPods and what-have-yous, and throw in our on-line book browsing vs. the day-long book store odysseys of old, and it's no wonder that we need to run on treadmills and do a bunch of mindless lifts and swings to battle the bulge.

Y-man - it doesn't take much mental exercise to actually "hear" the sound those typewriters made as they hit the dumpster.

CP - I learned on a manual typewriter, too. That class felt like a sojourn in Hell, what with the prissy little woman at the front marching us along: "A! S! D! F! J! K! L! SEM! SPACE! REPEAT ..." If she'd only thrown in some profanity and a few amusing songs about the temperature of Inuit genitalia I'd have been totally up with the program.