The Last of the Typewriter Men
A dynasty of repairmen is keeping the world’s typewriters from going obsolete
On a recent bleak, winter afternoon in the Flatiron District Paul Schweitzer was once again hard at work, trying to breathe life into a black, jazz-age Underwood typewriter. Behind his spectacles was a furrowed brow and behind that was a tangle of keys, steel, carrying cases and filing cabinets of rollers, spools, levers and keys, a morgue of mechanical guts.
To Schweitzer’s right, his son, Justin, performed a surgery of sorts on an IBM Wheelwriter, its beige frame cast aside and green electric boards splayed open. The smell of ink and WD-40 hung in the air, and only the occasional phone call or test clank of a machine’s keys interrupted their focus. The elder Schweitzer had spent the morning schlepping around the city with a black leather bag doing “house calls.” Some of Gramercy Typewriter Co.’s clients have had relationships with the company dating all the way back to its founding during the Great Depression.
Well aware of his status as a walking anachronism, Schweitzer, 76, now fixes approximately 20 typewriters a week. Some of them are used as props for movies or television shows recreating eras he was a part of, a fact that makes him laugh when he happens to see his machines while flipping through reruns. Schweitzer’s clientele, recorded in two boxes of handwritten notecards behind his desk, includes several high-profile names, including noted typewriter aficionado Tom Hanks.
“They don’t have a choice!” Schweitzer said, strolling through the two rooms of his office. He pointed at the wall of photographs and news clippings with weathered hands, which he concedes have been ink-stained since the Eisenhower administration.
If New York, as E.B. White said, is a city that “never quite catches up with itself,” no one may be more aware of it than Schweitzer. He is believed to be among the nation’s last typewriter repairmen, and he largely rejects computers, iPhones, laptops, and even credit cards in his workplace. Like a speaker of a vanishing language, he laments the loss of his tribe.
“There are fewer and fewer of us that do this,” he said. “Years ago, if you looked at the yellow pages, there were six pages of typewriter companies in Manhattan. Now, there’s us.”
As the 19th century teetered into the 20th, the clank of typewriter keys went from solo to symphony. They were the weapon of choice for professional writers, the business elite, people with things to say and the need to say them quickly. They unintentionally provided a passageway for women to tread into workplaces from which they had long been banished, and greatly expedited the rate at which human thought could be translated into ink. An 1867 issue of Scientific American marveled at the “machine by which it is assumed that man may print his thoughts twice as fast as he can write them.”
Using a typewriter at times feels more like playing piano than jotting down notes, a percussive exercise in expressing thought that is both tortuous and rewarding. Generations of thinkers have made typewriters their frenemies, and long before there were Gmail inboxes, print correspondence stacked up, some hastily written and impulsive on the steel gadgets. The QWERTY keyboard arrangement was supposedly developed to help alleviate the jamming of frequently conflicting keys. Later, a “shift” key was added, which earned its name by literally shifting a basket of keys to allow not just one, but two sets of letters to be utilized, and paving the way for digital shouting matches and accidentally endearing notes from relatives who still grapple with the dance between lower and upper cases.
Schweitzer and Gramercy Typewriter Co. have experienced much of that evolution firsthand. In 1932, Paul’s father, Abraham, found work during the Great Depression in what was considered at the time to be a growing business. At 18, he began learning the trade, then struck out on his own.
“He was busy all the time,” Schweitzer said of his father. “You figure that if you look around the city of New York, every desk in every office in the city had a typewriter.”
From the age of five, Schweitzer said he spent evenings at home working on machines with his father at a workbench and watched as his father manufactured typewriter ribbons in the basement. By 10, Schweitzer was spooling ribbons and taking off cover plates, from the start deriving a sense of satisfaction from taking the gadgets apart and puzzling them back together again. Schweitzer joined his father in the trade full-time in 1959.
In the early decades of the business, Abraham relied on monthly contracts where he would go into an office, clean the keys, change the ribbons and do basic repairs. Competition for clients was thick, and he landed some single accounts that put 50, 100 or 300 machines in his care. As the years went on, some typewriters translated to electric machines, and a monthly contract became a quarterly one, then many vanished.
Today, the steampunk, technological dodo may enter someone’s life at the beginning (maternity wards) or the end (funeral homes). Typewriters are still used by a handful of accounting and law firms and some government agencies to fill in specific forms. Schweitzer said he fields calls from elderly people around the country who want to keep their machines in form or restore one found in a basement. This week, a Corona to Tennessee. Some machines are orphans, fixed up but never retrieved by their owners. After 90 days, Schweitzer tells his customers, the machines go up for sale.
In addition to repair, Schweitzer restores and sells machines, a shelf of them gleaming as though fresh from the Sears Catalog. In the last five years, he said they have proven to be a draw for younger customers.
“They have their iPhones, they have their iPads, they have their computers,” he said. “But they still want a typewriter. If you want to concentrate, if you want to write in your own mind, write with a typewriter. You see the words hit the paper. There’s no distractions.”
As printers ascended throughout the 1990s, Schweitzer expanded his business to repair those, too. Now, he estimates half his revenue comes from printers, and half from typewriters, much of the latter fueled by nostalgia.
Schweitzer has no interest in computer repair. “Let the I.T. people do that,” he said.
Although some companies still manufacture ribbons and rubber rollers, Schweitzer is now his own parts supplier. He rummages through a room full of metal filing cabinets, one by one pulling out drawers with keys, cartridges, spigots and sprockets. “I got parts everywhere here,” he said. “When someone loses a key off a Remington, I have one. Motor belts, too. All these drawers, they’re all parts.”
When a machine is lost beyond repair he says he “cannibalizes” it for parts. This recycling system has made him confident in his ability to repair just about anything that comes through the door. “It’s a mess,” he says, assessing a floor-to-ceiling maze of metal, rubber and ink. “But we know where everything is.”
One benefit of being the last one standing is that when competitors close, Schweitzer won much of their business, he says. And seldom does a typewriter come through his door with something he hasn’t seen before. The worst is when a badly corroded, rusty machine that has dwelled in an attic too long comes in and “you open it up and the bugs start crawling out.”
But when repaired and tended to, typewriters “will last the rest of your life,” he said.
“Computers are being updated all the time,” he said, rolling his eyes at a PC laptop his son keeps in the corner. “Your computer becomes obsolete in a very short amount of time. It’s slow. It doesn’t have enough memory. A new model comes out. A printer won’t work with it anymore. That Underwood over there” — he points at a gleaming, black machine fit for James Joyce — “it’s 100 years old. What computer is going to last 100 years?”
For Schweitzer, the satisfaction comes in defying customer expectations, taking something they thought was dead and bringing it back to life. “They say, ‘Wow! I can’t believe the job you did.’”
Most clients find him by word of mouth or via Yelp. “It just happens,” he said. He does not take credit cards, but estimates are free. Schweitzer prefers an IBM Wheelwriter, which features a white-out cartridge, and an adding machine, for his own business.
The 1980s and 90s marked the rise of plastic machines, which were lighter but don’t last as long. From the 1920s to the 1950s, steel reigned. “When it got to the early 1970s, they started to go downhill as far as construction,” he said.
In the back, Justin works on a machine. “He was born into it,” Schweitzer said. “Like I was.”
Justin, also wearing an apron, fiddles with a part in his hand. “It’s true,” he said. He returned to repairing the Wheelwriter. Next to him, his father focused on the Underwood from the 1920s.
Occasionally, Schweitzer’s grandsons, ages 16 to 20, will come into the shop, but he doesn’t see them following into the family trade.
“There’s going to come a time where there are so few people repairing these things that they’re just going to have to say, that’s the end of it,” he said. “You can’t fix a typewriter, that’s it.”
Even the laser printer side of the business, too, will someday become obsolete. “I’m sad that it won’t continue forever,” he said. “But I guess they’ll come up with something else.”
Then he turned back to his workbench to finish the day’s repairs.
All photos by Andrew White